Modern wars are creating a new class of wounded warrior. IEDs can leave troops with horrific injuries.. that they survive. Now there are new ways to heal the broken bodies that is almost like science fiction. Joce Sterman shows us a treatment that's aptly called- The Matrix.
Sgt. Strang: I remember just a loud bang and it gets like that real high pitch squeal. It’s almost like in the movies and everything slows down.
Marine Sergeant Ronald Strang was 24 years old when he was deployed to Afghanistan with a mission to train the National Army and Police. Everything changed Easter Sunday 2010. He was on routine patrol in a village three hours west of Kandahar.
Sgt. Strang: It was just dead. There was no one out there. I remember turning around and looking behind me to my my one buddy and I said, it’s really, I had that gut feeling said, it’s really quiet, just watch your step.
A terrorist triggered an IED as Strang came into view.
Sgt. Strang: It spun me around and I fell on the ground and I just remember looking down at my leg, was splayed open. I just see my bone and muscle and just blood. If I was maybe another four or five inches ahead, it probably would have cut me in half.
Fellow Marines quickly put a tourniquet on his leg and kept him from bleeding to death. Strang was airlifted out and eventually transported back to the US.
Sgt. Strang: Different thoughts go through your head of your family back home and your friends, and what are they going to think? It was hard, it was hard at first.
More troops are surviving this kind of attack. In 2016, the Surgeon General of the Army said about 92 percent of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it home alive. That’s higher than any other war.
But survival doesn’t equal living. IEDs have created a new field of traumatic wounds for men and women returning from the front lines. Many face amputation...Or a permanent handicap.
Strang didn't lose his leg, but did lose much of his mobility.
Sgt. Strang: This was how I used to walk, so when I would hit, I’d have to have my knee locked back to hit it, or else, it would go like that, I didn’t have muscles to stand back up with.
Enter, the extra-cellular matrix...
Strang: When they were trying to explain it, it was kind of like science fiction at the time.
Joce: ...A tiny piece of material that would change lives.
Dr. Badylak: It's sort of like the glue that holds all of ourselves together.
Dr. Stephen Badylak directs research at the Regenerative Medicine Center at the University of Pittsburgh, focusing on the extracellular matrix -- or ECM.
It starts with a pig's bladder.
In the lab, scientists carefully slice, stretch, and strip to get rid of the cells, leaving just the connective material as a blank slate. It’s later placed in a patient’s body to create a paper thin scaffolding with what Badylak discovered - are medicinal super powers.
Joce: So essentially this matrix, when it’s placed in someone’s body, it can send a signal to say heal and regenerate.
Badylak: Exactly. The idea would be can we, can we use some of the signals to have us back up a little bit and say, can we now try to regrow again that tissue rather than just heal it with a scar? And the short answer’s yes.
Sgt. Strang: There's no need to be shy, I guess.
Strang's battle scar is a source of pride.
Sgt Strang: It's not bad, it goes pretty far.
He can show exactly where his ECM was implanted.
Sgt. Strang: It was about a half inch to an inch wide, paper thin, so it was a very little bit
It’s not perfect...But that transplanted tissue was the springboard to his recovery.
Strang: It was hard to get around before. The knee would give out, I'd fall over all the time, but afterwards, it's like I had a little more strength, I could walk, I could step on things like uneven surfaces, stairs not a problem anymore. I didn’t have a cane or a walker walking around.
The Department of Defense funded a recent study of 13 patients. By 6 months after ECM implantation, the patients showed demonstrated improvement in strength and motion.
Dr. Badylak: We’re at a point where we, that we can make more than just these little incremental changes. We can, we can take jumps.
The next step is getting funding for more trials.
Dr. Badylak: The Defense Department, you know, they, they’ve stepped up to the plate and said, you know, we were going to do whatever we can to help these guys.
Seven years after getting the Matrix - walks with his dog, Moose, provide much of his physical therapy. He's now a newlywed, with enough mobility to continue his life of service - as a police officer for a VA center.
Joce: This procedure gave you your life back?
Strang: Pretty much Yeah. It was huge for me, I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t got it.
According to the latest government figures, seven federal agencies invested nearly $3 billion in regenerative medicine research between 2012 and 2014. $252 million came from the DOD.