Chase C.

His UNC care team used "pixie dust" to help Rocky Mount, N.C., 1-year-old, Chase, regrow his fingertips after losing them to severe burns Labor Day weekend 2010.

Medical Magic: "Pixie dust" helps toddler regrow fingers

While families across the country enjoyed cook outs with friends and family last Labor Day, 17-month-old Chase C. of Rocky Mount, N.C., was being airlifted to the Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

The boy had fallen into a pile of ashes left from a family bonfire. Though the ashes were days old, the heat was enough to cause second and third degree burns to the toddler’s feet, left leg, bottom and left hand. 

As Chase endured numerous skin grafts in the weeks that followed, his parents, Jon and Julie, were devastated. They first blamed themselves for their son's accident but soon realized their energy would be better spent focused on getting their son well. They were an active part of Chase's care team and did their utmost to understand as much about his treatment and recovery as possible, often turning to the Internet in those late nights at the hospital.

It was online the family first stumbled upon a cutting-edge treatment being done at the University of Pittsburgh. According to the story, a man was able to grow back a finger after losing it in an accident. The treatment involved sprinkling what the man called "pixie dust" on the wound, and in a month his finger had grown back.

The "pixie dust," they soon learned, was actually an extra cellular matrix powder developed in the lab of Dr. Stephen Badylak. Badylak's research involves scraping the cells from the lining of a pig's bladder, placing the remaining tissue into acid to clean the remaining cells and then drying it out. Once dried, it can be turned into a powder. This process takes out many of the stimuli for scar tissue formation and leaves the signals that were always there for constructive remodeling. In other words, when the extra cellular matrix is put on a wound, scientists believe it stimulates cells in the tissue to grow rather than scar.

"They were going to surgically amputate Chase's fingertips," recalls Julie. "It was that or wait for them to fall off because of the scar tissue and lack of blood flow, and we thought, well, we really have nothing to lose."

But would Chase's doctors be willing to consider a treatment that seemed more science fiction than science?

The anxious parents expected skepticism when they first presented the idea to Chase's surgeon, Dr. Scott Hultman. Instead, Hultman readily contacted the University of Pittsburgh to learn more, and the extra cellular matrix powder was hand-delivered the next morning, just in time for Chase's surgery on Oct. 9.

"We were so impressed with Dr. Hultman and his willingness to help us explore this new treatment," says Julie, more than seven months later. "Chase has experienced obvious finger growth. He’s even grown back part of his thumbnail."

And in the months since Chase's 48-day inpatient stay at UNC, Chase has continued occupational and physical therapy and biweekly laser treatments.

"We've come a long way," reflects Julie. "He's doing so many of the things you would expect a child his age to do, things we weren't sure he'd ever do— swing a baseball, hold a brush, even pick up M&Ms."

The family will return to N.C. Children's Hospital in June for what they hope is Chase's last surgery, separating some fingers and toes that have grown together. Only then will they have a true idea how much Chase has regained, but they already feel thankful

"On that hour-and-a-half hour drive each way, I have a lot of time to think," says Julie. "I feel we’re so blessed that he is alive, and his face was not burnt. He is able to walk and use his hands. It could have been so much worse."

More about Chase C.


Rocky Mount, NC, Nash County—about 160 miles roundtrip


Second- and third-degree burns

Primary pediatric specialties:

Burn center; plastic surgery; anesthesiology

Other pediatric specialties seen:

Occupational therapy; physical therapy; recreational therapy

Frequency of visits:

Twice per week for outpatient OT/PT; biweekly laser treatments; surgical procedures as needed

Favorite caregivers

Burn center nurses—Melissa, Kathy and Emily
Nurses from 7 Children's—Megan and Caitlyn
Occupational therapists—Heather, Beth and Sidney
Physical therapists—Jay, Luis and Keith

Favorite thing about N.C. Children's Hospital:

"Chase's favorite thing was the wagon. From the moment we found out I could pull him around in a wagon, we would go on hour-long walks around the hospital in the wagon—to the playroom, Starbucks, the mailbox, or even just to go outside and watch construction. That was Chase's way outside. Even when he had to lie flat, we could rig up a cushioned bed on wheels in the wagon. It was a lifesaver for a child who was always on the go prior to our hospital stay." ~ Chase's mom, Julie

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