Iraq, Afghanistan, and the decade or so of not-war-but-still-war that’s been going on has not killed large number of soldiers (relative to past conflicts), but has maimed a huge percentage of those returning home from battle. Those returning previously faced few options to repair their injuries. Now, there looks to be some real progress in regenerative muscle medicine:

[Dr. Stephen] Badylak and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine are only one of several groups leading far-out research projects that are part of the Pentagon’s Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), a massive, $250 million undertaking meant to quickly usher regenerative medicine into the mainstream. Already, military brass have fast-tracked clinical trials for “bone cement” to replace metal screws and plates and accelerated the sophistication of face and hand transplants — a handful of which have now been conducted in the United States.

The tantalizing prospect of regrowing tissue using Badylak’s technique first made headlines in 2007, when he announced the successful regrowth of a small portion of fingertip using a concoction based on cells derived from a pig’s bladder. His approach with muscle tissue is similar: Surgeons start by implanting what’s called an extracellular matrix, a sort of “cellular glue,” whose key components are growth factor proteins from pig bladders. Those proteins trigger the body’s own stem cells to flock to the area and initiate the process of tissue growth and wound repair — which adult muscles normally wouldn’t do. Combined with an intensive rehab program to essentially “exercise” the nascent muscle, the body is able to restore not only basic muscle tissue, but the tendons and nerves that are necessary for function.

“The patient needs to do their part, and that involves a lot of work — we aren’t just putting a cast on the leg and waiting,” Badylak said. “But these soldiers coming in with 60, 70 percent muscle loss, they’ll do anything to get their lives back.”

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