The amazing 'pixie dust' made from pigs bladder that regrew a severed finger in FOUR weeks
By FIONA MACRAE - More by this author » Last updated at 23:22pm on 30th April 2008
Scientists are claiming an amazing breakthrough - regrowing a man's severed finger with the aid of an experimental powder.
Four weeks after Lee Spievack sliced almost half an inch off the top of one of his fingers, he said it had grown back to its original length.
Four months later it looked like any other finger, complete with "great feeling", a fingernail and fingerprint. The secret to the astonishing regrowth is said to be the powder described by Mr Spievack, a Cincinnati model shop salesman, as "pixie dust".
More properly known as extra-cellular matrix, it is bursting with collagen, the protein that gives skin its strength and elasticity, and is made from dried pig's bladder.
It was developed to regenerate damaged ligaments in horses.
"The second time I put it on I could already see growth," said Mr Spievack, 69.
"Each day it was up further.
"Finally it closed up and was a finger. It took about four weeks before it was sealed."
Mr Spievack damaged his finger in the propeller of a model plane three years ago.
He turned down a skin graft in favour of the "pixie dust" recommended by his brother, a former surgeon and the founder of the firm that makes the powder.
While it is not entirely clear how the powder works, its developers believe it kick-starts the body's natural healing process by sending out signals that mobilise the body's own cells into repairing the damaged tissue.
Dr Stephen Badylak, of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, told the BBC: "There are all sorts of signals in the body.
"We have got signals that are good for forming scar tissue and others that are good for regenerating tissues.
"One way to think about these matrices is that we've taken out many of the stimuli for scar tissue formation and left those signals which were always there for constructive remodelling."
In other words, the powder directs tissues to grow afresh rather than form scars.
He believes the powder also forms a microscopic scaffolding for the body's own cells to build round.
"We're not smart enough to figure out how to regrow a finger," said Dr Badylak.
"Maybe what we can do is bring all of the pieces of the puzzle to the right place and then let Mother Nature take its course.
"There's a lot more than we don't know than we do know."
Dr Badylak has both medical and veterinary degrees. He has had more than 180 scientific papers published and this year won a coveted Carnegie Science Centre Award for Excellence.
His work is driven by a successful heart operation he carried out on a dog in the 1980s, in which part of a pig intestine was used to fashion a makeshift aorta for its heart.
Months later, an examination revealed that the transplanted intestine part had morphed into a vessel that looked much like an aorta.
The "pixie dust" powder is made by scraping the cells from the lining of a pig's bladder.
After these are discarded, the remaining tissue is "cleaned" in acid and dried out.
Its benefits may not be limited to finger tips, with the U.S. military poised to try it out on soldiers whose fingers have been amputated.
The patients will have the end of the damaged finger or thumb reopened surgically, to allow the powder to be sprinkled on the raw flesh three times a week.
The hope is they will have enough regrowth to allow them to perform the pinching motion needed to hold a toothbrush or do up a button.
Burns victims could also benefit.
Dr Badylak, scientific adviser to the company making the powder, also intends to see if the technique will regrow oesophagus tissue removed in cancer patients.
Even entire limbs might one day be conjured up by the "pixie dust", Dr Badylak believes.
He said: "I think that within ten years we will have strategies that will re-grow the bones and promote the growth of functional tissue around those bones.
"And that is a major step towards eventually doing the entire limb."
Some animals can regenerate tissue without "pixie dust".
For example, an adult salamander can regenerate a lost leg over and over again, regardless of how many times the part is amputated.