The U.S. Defense Department has launched a five-year, Army-led cooperative effort to leverage cutting-edge medical technology to develop new ways to assist servicemembers who’ve suffered severe, disfiguring wounds during their wartime service.
The newly established Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, known by the acronym AFIRM, will serve as the military’s operational agency for the effort, Dr. S. Ward Casscells, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
A key component of the initiative is to harness stem cell research and technology in finding innovative ways to use a patient’s natural cellular structure to reconstruct new skin, muscles and tendons, and even ears, noses and fingers, Casscells said.
Just more than 900 U.S. servicemembers have undergone amputations of some kind due to injuries suffered in wartime service in Afghanistan or Iraq, Casscells said. Other troops have been badly burned or suffered spinal cord injuries or significant vision loss.
“Getting these people up to where they are functioning and reintegrated, employed, (and) able to help their families and be fully participating members of society” is the task at hand in which AFIRM will play a major role, Casscells said.
AFIRM will fall under the auspices of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command, based at Fort Detrick, Md., and it also will work in conjunction with U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, in San Antonio.
The Medical Research and Material Command is the Army’s lead medical research, development and related-material acquisition agency. It comes under U.S. Army Medical Command, which is led by Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army’s surgeon general. Schoomaker accompanied Casscells at the news conference.
“The cells that we’re talking about actually exist in our bodies today,” Schoomaker pointed out. “We, even as adults, possess in our bodies small quantities of cells which have the potential, under the right kind of stimulation, to become any one of a number of different kinds of cells.
For example, Schoomaker said, the human body routinely regenerates bone marrow or liver cells.
AFIRM will have an overall budget of about $250 million for the initial five-year period, of which about $80 million will be provided by the Defense Department, Schoomaker said. Other program funding will be provided by the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., the Department of Veterans Affairs, and local public and private matching funding.
Rutgers University, in N.J.; Wake Forest University, in N.C.; and the University of Pittsburgh also will participate in the initiative.
Dr. Anthony Atala, a surgeon and director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest, also attended the news conference. Atala’s current research keys on growing new human cells and tissue.
“All the parts of your body, tissues and organs, have a natural repository of cells that are ready to replicate when an injury occurs,” Atala told reporters.
Medical technicians now can select cells from human donors and, through a series of scientific processes, can “regrow” new tissue, Atala said.
“Then, you can plant that (regenerated tissue) back into the same patient, thus avoiding rejection,” Atala said.
Special techniques are being developed to employ regrown tissue in the fabrication of new muscles and tendons, Atala observed, or for the repair/replacement of damaged or missing extremities such as noses, ears and fingers.
Continued advancement in regenerative medicine would greatly benefit those servicemembers and veterans who’ve been severely scarred by war, Schoomaker said.
The three-star general cited animals like salamanders that can regrow lost tails or limbs. “Why can’t a mammal do the same thing?” he asked.
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