WASHINGTON (CIRCA) -- Marine Sgt. Ronald Strang's service to his country ended with a horrific injury caused by an IED in Afghanistan. But a revolutionary treatment is giving wounded warriors like him the chance to heal in a whole new way. And it's all thanks to a pig's bladder.
Strang was just 24 when he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marines, tasked with training the country's national police. He was on routine patrol on Easter Sunday 2010 when his life changed forever. Strang remembers that day vividly, saying, "I remember just a loud bang and it gets like a real high-pitched squeal. It’s almost like in the movies where everything slows down."
As Strang explained during an interview with our partner, Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson, a remotely triggered improvised explosive device took him down. His leg had been ripped apart by a device colleagues described as a coffee can filled with explosives, nuts and bolts. Strang was saved by the quick-thinking Marines working alongside him. He was airlifted to a hospital and eventually transported to the United States. Numerous surgeries followed, leaving him with a pronounced limp and problems that required a walker or a wheelchair to get around.
Fast forward to 2019. Strang now walks on his own and has enough mobility to carry on his life of service, working as a police officer at a Veterans Affairs center. His improvement can be traced to a pig and a procedure that's changing the way battlefield injuries are treated.
"It was huge for me. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten it or it wasn’t available ."
Scientists at the McGowan Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh are using pig bladders to create something called the extracellular matrix, or ECM. The bladder is stripped of its cells, stretched and scraped into a thin piece of scaffolding that is then implanted into the body in an effort to help healing.
Explaining the ECM, lead researcher Dr. Stephen Badylak said, "It's sort of like the glue that holds all of our cells together. What we've learned is that it's actually a reservoir of signaling molecules that's kind of like an information highway between cells."
The matrix works like a connector between the brain and a battlefield injury. According to Badylak, it sends signals that tell the body to regrow tissue instead of just repairing it with a scar. It's a new spin on an old practice: regenerative medicine, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding from the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. The money directed toward Badylak's research, he says, is essentially addressing the changing wounds of war.
"One of the biggest differences over the past several decades in battlefield injuries has been the fact that fewer soldiers are dying, but more soldiers are being injured," Badylak said. "And that's a result of the marked improvements in the gear that they wear. So these soldiers sustain horrible extremity injuries."
But surviving and living are two different things. The ECM technology is designed to change that, with the goal to improve quality of life and mobility. It has succeeded in limited testing. So far, the matrix has only been used in a small number of patients. Thirteen individuals involved in a DOD study conducted in collaboration with the McGowan Institute showed vastly improved motion and strength just months after implantation.
"Instead of the patient confined to a wheelchair or crutches the rest of their life, we can change their quality of life. We’ve done that."
Sgt. Strang is living proof. Years after getting the matrix implanted into his left leg, he no longer needs physical therapy. He's traded deployments in the desert for a quiet life in the country. Strang's injury isn't pretty. But he now wears it as a badge of honor. Without the ECM, he says, "My life would have been completely different."
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