Monday, February 26, 2007

The Medicinal Power Of Moonlight and Pig Bladders

My mom is a firm believer in New Age beliefs. She wrote a book on Nostradamus, reinterpreting his verses for predictive ability (HERE is a link to her book). She also wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Power of Crystals," as in quartz crystals having energy of their own that can be tapped for special supernatural uses. I can't say I always share her beliefs, but they are at least entertaining and certainly point to her open-mindedness. She's a regular reader of this blog, after all (but, then, doesn't everyone's mom read their kids' stuff, even if it's dreck like this?). I must admit a good deal of fascination in "alternative" views of reality, including UFOs, ghosts, and predictions, with a degree of irrational belief. If even 1% of it is true, most of these things would be groundbreaking and mindwarping.

I can't scoff at my mom, though. When I was a teenager I had a nasty wart growing on a finger for more than a year. One night, when there was a full moon, she convinced me she could remove it by casting a sort of spell. Smiling, we went outside, and in the light of the moon she rubbed the wart in some special way. I can't remember if she said anything while doing this (Mom, maybe you could leave a comment and describe the procedure!). Laughing, I went back to whatever I was doing. But within a couple weeks the wart sloughed off and never came back. Coincidence? The scientist in me says yes, but I admit a certain degree of bewilderment.

A recent news report describes something less magical, but just as interesting. Think, for a minute, of shaman remedies where a wound is treated with extract from some forest plant, and you'll be on the right path.

Animals such as salamanders are able to re-grow limbs and tails that have been cut off. Even human fetuses have a similar regenerative ability. Science is still figuring out how. Then one day a researcher was trying to replace a dog's aorta with a piece of intestine. The wound healed amazingly fast and the intestine re-formed into a sort of aorta. After years of study, it became apparent that extracellular matrix from the intestine had guided regeneration of the tissue. Extracellular matrix (ECM) of this sort is found in a number of other organs, such as bladder. Because ECM is cell-free, it isn't rejected by the body's immune responses.

As a result of research, ECM patches have been used for a number of years to help heal torn rotator cuffs, hernias, and in veterinary medicine. Now there is a report describing how ECM is able to grow back missing tips of fingers by applying extract of pig bladder:


A company called ACell, formed by the researchers who first discovered the technique, is testing the product for many such uses. A brother of one of ACell's founders accidentally cut off the tip of his finger in 2005 by sticking it into a moving hobby plane propeller. In his words, "I pointed to it and said, 'You need to get rid of this engine, it's too dangerous.' And I put my finger through the prop." Oops! Talk about dumbass mistakes.

Doctors told him his fingertip was lost forever, but he went to his brother at ACell and received a paste of ECM from pig bladder, which he applied to his finger tip every two days for four weeks. Now the finger tip has grown back. In fact, the nail grows at twice the rate of the other fingers, and the skin on the tip doesn't crack from cold weather like his other fingers!

Now the military is testing this technique on missing fingers of soldiers from Iraq. If they can manage to grow back even a slight stump or digit to pinch with, their lives will be far better than the alternative:

It ain't magic, but certainly it is the application of something we still don't fully understand. In the words of Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," but I would add that those technologies need not be "advanced" in the sense of novel physics or computer power. Sometimes the most advanced technologies are reapplications of what nature has already given us, or what our forebears already figured out and modern society forgot.

So is there a scientific explanation for my Mom's wart-removal technique, or is it just hocus-pocus? Will science one day re-embrace the old "eye of newt and bladder of pig" philosophy of Medieval medicine? In any case, Mom, keep letting me in on your alternative views. Science, shaman magic, and New Age beliefs all have one thing in common, they constantly revisit and re-adjust our concept of reality in search of the elusive truth.

By the way, if you've got any warts, the next full moon is March 3rd ….

1 comment:

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