Regenerative Medicine Helps Rebuild Wounded Warriors

PHOTO: Marine Sgt. Ron Strang lost half of his thigh muscle to shrapnel in Afghanistan.
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Ron Strang lay helpless in the dirt as the hole in his leg was packed with gauze and swathed in bandages.

The Marine sergeant was on foot patrol in Afghanistan's Helmand Province when an improvised explosive device tore through his left thigh, shredding his muscle and draining half his blood.

"I'm sure I would've died without the quick actions of my fellow Marines," said Strang, 28, who endured more than a dozen surgeries and painful skin grafts to close the gaping wound.

Though his skin eventually healed, Strang was left with half the quadriceps he once had.

"I had to use a cane or walker," he said, adding that he would fall "a couple times a week."

But an experimental 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 tissue, called extracellular matrix, acted as a cell-scavenging scaffold, recruiting Strang's own stem cells to rebuild his muscle from the inside out.

"It's a game changer," 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 science 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."

Scherer oversees the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or AFIRM, a program launched in 2008 to translate innovative laboratory research into treatments for troops with once-fatal injuries.

"We're saving a lot of people that would have died from their wounds 10 years ago," said Scherer, adding that advances in body armor and battle field care are helping more soldiers survive the wounds of war. "Now we're faced with these very large, catastrophic injuries to the limbs, the head and neck that we've not seen before because they just weren't survivable."


Marine Sgt. Ron Strang can walk after an experimental procedure to rebuild his thigh muscle. (Courtesy Ron Strang)

In its four years, AFIRM has funded eight clinical trials, with several more on the horizon.

Veterans are eager to enroll, Scherer said.

"I think most of them say, 'If I can help my buddies, I'm willing to step up and participate in the trials,'" he said.

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