Marine sergeant Ron Strang was on foot patrol in Afghanistan's Helmand Province when an improvised explosive device tore through his left thigh, shredding his muscle.
Though his skin eventually healed, Strang was left with half the quadriceps he once had.
An experimental stem cell treatment has tricked his body into regenerating itself, and now Strang can walk -- even run -- without help.
"I had no clue this even existed," he said of the pioneering procedure to implant pig tissue stripped of cells deep inside his thigh. "I was skeptical at first, but it was amazing to learn how it works."
The material, called extracellular matrix, is the natural scaffolding that underlies all tissues and organs, in people as well as animals. It is produced by cells, and for years scientists thought that its main role was to hold them in their proper position. But researchers now know that this scaffolding also signals the body to grow and repair those tissues and organs. Armed with that knowledge, the new body builders are using this material from pigs and other animals to engineer the growth of replacement tissue in humans.
“We’re trying to work with nature rather than fight nature,” said Stephen Badylak, deputy director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "It's definitely more effective than anything that's been tried to date."
Strang's surgery is just one example of cutting-edge stem cell research aimed at making wounded vets whole again.
"We're basically pushing the envelope of regenerative and restorative medicine at a much faster rate than ever," said Col. John Scherer, director of the U.S. Army Medical Department's Clinical and Rehabilitative Medicine Research Program in Fort Detrick, Md. "We see it as a critical component of providing improved care for wounded service members."
Stem cell research and development of treatments to regrow organs and tissue, also known as regenerative medicine, has come a long way. At it's core the stem cells used often come from the patient to increase the chances the implant or therapy is not rejected by the body.
Having a source of stem cells that you can depend on is going to be a increasing trend that is evident with the increasing number of parents banking their children's cord blood and dental pulp stem cells as a form of bio-insurance.
Working with the natural repair mechanisms deep inside of us makes sense but getting to the source is not always easy or painless. in emergencies, the primary source tends to be bone marrow stem cells, requiring an invasive and painful procedure.
Learn more about banking your own stem cells: