Breakthroughs In Tissue Regrowth Give Hope to War Wounded

It's science fiction turning into fact.

A new Defense Department program to make U.S. soldiers whole again is developing cutting-edge medical technology that's regrowing human tissue, in some cases, on the backs of mice.

The Pentagon recently launched the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine or AFIRM, a five-year $250 million initiative in cooperation with researchers at Wake Forest and Rutgers that uses soldiers' own stem cells to grow skin, muscles, tendons and even bone.

Army Surgeon General Lt Gen Eric Schoomaker said like a salamander regenerating a lost tail -researchers want to take amphibian technology and use the same concept for humans.

Based human body's natural ability to self-heal, they attach cells to scaffolding, say in the shape of a nose, and re-grow tissue.

"In addition, the team will work to develop techniques to salvage and reconstruct damaged limbs, hands, fingers as well as facial repair of ears and noses, to help in cranial reconstruction of severe head injuries," said Schoomaker during the announcement last week.

The program has given new hope to burn victims like a 23-year old Marine who was severely disfigured from an I.E.D. explosion that took the lives of some of his comrades. Researchers at Wake Forest and Rutgers have managed to grow a human ear generated from his stem cells on a mouse that will be transplanted back onto the Marine.

He's already undergone 40 operations and now will be a candidate for facial reconstruction using this new technology.

Already AFIRM scientists in other experiments have grown a bladder and transplanted it successfully and have replaced aortas in hearts.

Soldiers in Iraq have suffered a historic number of injuries that, in previous times, would have caused death. According to the Department of Defense, nearly 32,000 have been wounded in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and 900 have required at least one amputation.

"Eighty-two percent of all our wounded have extremity injuries, 30 percent have wounds to the head and the face, and 6 percent have severe burns," Schoomaker explained. "The new institute will work to develop techniques that will help make our soldiers whole again."

AFIRM, which is funded by an $80 million Department of Defense contribution, money from National Institutes of Health, and other public and private contributions, is aimed at psychological healing as at physical, says biochemist and research team leader Joachim Kohn of Rutgers University.

"Human suffering, the images come back from war, seriously demoralizing the American population," Kohn told "Doing everything possible to restore (it) will, to blunt the effectiveness of this insurgency is critically important."

If this all goes according to plan, the military will function as matchmaker of sorts.

As technology is created, wounded soldiers will be directed to cutting-edge treatment specific to their needs. Scientists, in exchange, will have access to a pool of ideal research subjects: adult male candidates with severe scar tissue and lame digits.

One of the earliest clinical trials, slated for later this year, will be hosted by Kohn's group at Rutgers and will involve harvesting patients' own fat cells then transplanting them back into the body, sort of like a reverse liposuction, to build out areas of the body that may have been blown away.

The other team leader, Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest, is also was also busy putting together clinical trials, which will occur, as he puts it, "when the time is right and the technologies are available."

Patient flow will depend on the war situation; there's currently a pool of 300 severely burned and disfigured patients, most injured by blasts while serving in Iraqi, Kohn told

Though this program is funded in part by the military, wounded soldiers aren't the only ones who stand to benefit.

"Some civilians will be included in the military trials," Kohn said. "There are far more civilian burn patients, far more car accident victims than blast victims and in the end the civilian population will benefit from this as well."

In addition to the clinical trials to come, there are also individual surgeries being planned right now, including one for the Marine burn victim.

So far, this initiative has met with few, if any opponents. The controversy endemic to stem cell research was carefully side-stepped; AFIRM programs are using adult stem cells, from placenta and amniotic fluid, not the much-debated embryonic stem cells.

"We will not regrow limbs, definitely not," Kohn tells "And we are not using severely wounded soldiers as guinea pigs." For now he's focusing on less sci-fi-sounding treatment. "We're trying to improve the healing process, to heal without grafts, to get better skin equivalents so reintegration into society is easier."

Perry Jeffries, 47, a founder of the non-profit group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, sees the breakthrough technology as a step in the right direction and maybe improve the lives of his amputee friends.

"Those electric arms have fingers that move all around but that darn thing is heavy. I can't tell you how many people have an $80,000 appliance sitting in their closets and are stuck using some old arm thing that isn't so heavy but hurts and doesn't move at all," he told

"If we can get some function back in the arms-well, let's see what happens."