A powder nick-named “Pixie Dust” is being used to save the limbs of war heroes who have been wounded in Afghanistan.
Surgeons have already used the dust to save several soldiers so badly mutilated that they were at risk of amputation.
Made from pig bladders it has the ability to help the human body grow new tissue to replace large areas of a leg or arm destroyed by blast damage.
Many British and American soldiers have lost limbs to roadside bombs in the bitter battle for control of Afghanistan.
Now there is hope that limbs that would have been previously amputated can be saved.
Pig bladders contain a substance called extra cellular matrix, which is made up largely of collagen.
Scientists have already used powdered pig bladders help grow replacement human bladders.
But researchers working for the American military realised the substance might also help hundreds of wounded soldiers.
Professor Steve Wolf one the US’s top plastic surgeons -is carrying out a trial in Houston, Texas on victims of the Afghan fighting and has already treated several young soldiers whose limbs were so badly damaged they were unable to walk or faced amputation.
He said: ‘The word has got around about how this substance from pig bladders has got this magic ability to grow new tissue. Then one day one of the patients used the phrase ‘pixie dust’ to describe it and the name stuck
‘We don’t quite know how it works which adds to its magical qualities. We think that it attracts cells in the body that have the ability to multiply and gives them a chemical signal to make new tissue.’
Professor Wolf – chief of clinical trials at the American Army’s Institute for Surgical Research is just about to start a formal trial using ‘pixie dust’ on bomb victims after the successful treatment of a handful of blast victims last year.
One of the first soldiers to receive the treatment was Corporal Isais Hernandez.
He was so severely wounded by a mortar round that amputation of his leg seemed likely.
Corporal Hernandez, a 25-year-old marine, was wounded in 2008, in an incident in which a colleague died.
He said: ‘The surgery that Dr Wolf performed has been fantastic. Within a few weeks of the operation last year I was doing things with the leg I hadn’t done for months.
‘It was so quick that you could almost see it growing and filling the hole where I was blasted.
‘Before I had the sheets made from pigs bladder put into my leg I could barely use it. I had to crawl upstairs or take the elevator and I was either on sticks or in a wheelchair. It was pretty much useless.
‘I had only 10 per cent strength in my injured leg compared to my good leg which was one reason why they’d wanted to amputate.
‘After the operation it was up to 25 per cent. Now my leg is back to 35 per cent strength and I’m able to get out on my mountain bike and I can walk as far as I want.
‘The Extra Cellular membrane had not only made muscle but also built nerves. I could feel my limb tingling as the new tissues grew.’
‘Professor Wolfe has said there’s a good chance I might be able to go back to active duty.’
He had a gaping, crater-like wound, in his thigh right down to the bone and doctors had no way of replacing the muscle and other tissue that had been blown away.
Professor Wolf operated and instead of using powered bladder he used it in sheet form putting layers of it into the large wound in leg Corporal Hernandez’s leg.
Magically over a period of several weeks new tissue and muscle grew until the wound was filled.
Professor Wolf said: ‘This was an amazing result. It was quite a sight to see the body regenerate in this way because in the past we have not been able to replace muscle and tissue once it has been lost.’
The Extra Cellular Matrix grew nerves, ordinary tissue and muscle where there had been none.
Corporal Hernandez is now able to walk on the limb – which he couldn’t do before surgery -and is undergoing physiotherapy to restore as much strength as possible to his limb.
A large scar covers the area where the sheets of pig bladder worked their magic.