The US Department of Defense has announced a five year program to develop new stem-cell based treatments for service members disfigured from war-time injuries. The new Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM) will explore the use of a patient's own stem cells to grow replacement skin, tissue and other body parts. AFIRM will collaborate with the US Army Institute of Surgical Research, in San Antonio, Texas and several universities including Wake Forest University, North Carolina; Rutgers University in New Jersey; and the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
The new initiative aims to use stem cell technology to make new skin, tendons, muscles, as well as new body parts such as ears, fingers and noses. Speaking at a press conference held last week, Lt Gen Eric Schoomaker cited the case of a badly-burned Marine, who will receive a new nose and ears grown using his own stem cells. He added 'the cells that we're talking about actually exist in our bodies today'.
The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan is apparently the main reason for a marked increase in severe blast trauma, which now accounts for three quarters of all injuries. Within five years, AFIRM hope to develop new therapies for burn repair, wound healing without scarring, facial reconstruction and limb reconstruction or regeneration. 'We're embarking on a new generation of research that's going to redefine the Army and military medicine as we know it today', said Schoomaker.
Dr Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University, explained: 'All the parts of your body, tissues and organs, have a natural repository of cells that are ready to replicate when an injury occurs'. The scientists hope to harness this regenerative ability to grow replacement tissue that will not be rejected by the patient's body. For replacement body parts such as ears, the cells will be 'painted' on to a biodegradable scaffold, and incubated for a few weeks before being transplanted on to the patient's body.
AFIRM will receive around $250 million over the initial five years, about $80 million of which will come from the Department of Defense, with the remaining funding coming from other private and public organisations, including the National Institutes of Health.
Dr Jess Buxton is Contributing Editor at BioNews and a Trustee at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is co-author of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK).