The US Department of Defense has announced the launch of a five year collaborative program to make use of cutting edge medical technology to treat service members who are badly disfigured from injuries received while serving in wars.

Giving an example of the type of innovative treatment the new initiative would be developing, Lt Gen Eric Schoomaker, who is Surgeon General of the US Army told a press conference held at the Pentagon yesterday, Thursday 17th April, about one case of a badly burned Marine who was going to receive a new ear grown from his own stem cells.

Using the patient's own stem cells to regenerate replacement skin, tissue and other body parts is an area currently being explored by the new Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM) said Schoomaker.

AFIRM will come under the US Army's leading medical research, development and acquisitions agency for related supplies, the US Army Medical Research and Material Command at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, which ultimately reports to Schoomaker in his capacity as Army Surgeon General.

AFIRM will also collaborate with the US Army Institute of Surgical Research, based in in San Antonio, Texas.

Assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, Dr S Ward Casscells, who was also at the Pentagon press conference, said that AFIRM will be the operational agency for the initiative, where new ways of using a patient's own cellular structure to make new skin, tendons, muscles, and even noses, fingers and ears will be developed using stem cell technology.

The use of use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan is the main reason for a marked increase in severe blast trauma, which now accounts for three quarters of all injuries.

Improvements in body armour, faster evacuation from the battlefield and advances in medical care now mean that more soldiers survive, but they face severe challenges from their injuries, which affect their limbs, their head, face, skin (from burns in particular), resulting in many years of treatment and often accompanied by lifelong disability.

Casscells said that just over 900 US military personnel have had limbs amputated from injuries received while serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, and there are also many who have other injuries like severe burns, loss of vision, and damaged spinal cords.

The assistant secretary said that AFIRM will play a major hand in getting these service members back to being fully participating members of society.

Explaining a little about the stem cell technology that the new effort will be developing, Schoomaker said:

"The cells that we're talking about actually exist in our bodies today."

Even in adulthood our bodies have a small quantity of cells that can be stimulated to become like stem cells, with the potential to become any one of a range of different cell types.

For the initial five year period, AFIRM will be funded by an overall budget of around 250 million dollars, 80 of which will come from the Department of Defense, and the rest from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and matching funds from other public and private organizations.

Also at the conference, and talking in a little more detail about the stem cell technology that will form the main part of the research and development work of the new initiative, was Dr Anthony Atala, a surgeon and director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University, one of the partners collaborating with AFIRM, who said:

"All the parts of your body, tissues and organs, have a natural repository of cells that are ready to replicate when an injury occurs."

Cells can now be taken from human donors, taken through a series of scientific processes, and be used to regrow new tissue, said Atala.

"Then, you can plant that (regenerated tissue) back into the same patient, thus avoiding rejection," he added.

Two other universities are also participating in the initiative: Rutgers University, in New Jersey, and the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania.

Expressing his hope and optimism for the new initiative, Schoomaker said that salamanders can grow new tails and limbs to replace ones they have lost:

"Why can't a mammal do the same thing?" he asked.

Source: American Forces Press Service, Rutgers University.

: Catharine Paddock, PhD

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