WASHINGTON, May 8, 2008 – Thanks to great strides in medical care, today’s U.S. warriors have a 50 percent greater chance of survival if they’re wounded on the battlefield than their Vietnam War counterparts did. State-of-the-art prosthetics help troops who have lost a limb resume many, and in some cases all, of their pre-injury activities. The Defense Department is hoping to find new and even better ways to help the nation’s warriors as it researches a field called regenerative medicine that would enable people to generate new skin and even grow new limbs, Army Col. (Dr.) Robert Vandre told online journalists and “bloggers” in a conference call yesterday.

Vandre, research area director for combat casualty care research at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, has fielded the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a consortium that has the top scientists in the field working with the Army to drastically improve the quality of life of wounded servicemembers.

Statistics show that 82 percent of returning wounded servicemembers have extremity injuries, 33 percent have wounds to the face or head, and 5 to 6 percent have burns, Vandre said. He noted that thanks to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, prosthetics for wounded warriors have come a long way in recent years.

“DARPA has great programs in place for prosthetics,” he noted, “but we are hoping that eventually there will be no need for prosthetics.”

Vandre said doctors often are forced to remove limbs because they know that if they don’t, the injured servicemember would always be in excruciating pain, and unable to function normally. The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine is working to find ways to improve chances of recovery and regeneration that would encourage doctors to keep damaged limbs in place.

“The idea is to use stem cells to put people back together and re-grow the cells that are damaged,” Vandre said. The scientists use adult stem cells from the actual patients in their research to minimize the likelihood of rejection.

“Aside from guaranteeing that the body will likely accept the new stem cells, adult stem cells are also less likely than fetal stem cells to cause cancer,” he said.

Vandre explained a process called extracellular matrix, in which scientists are working to re-grow damaged muscles.

“Currently, if someone has a wound right in the middle of the muscle and is missing the middle third part, there is not much you can do,” he explained. “But with regenerative growth, you can tie the ends back together.”

Vandre said the ability to produce new skin should be available in the next few years. “We will easily be able to do things like replace ears and the tip of the nose,” he said.

Seven of the 10 top regenerative scientists in the United States are part of the institute, Vandre said, calling that a great indication of its potential for success. “It’s really a dream team of people,” he said.

The team is funded by $85 million in Department of Defense and National Institute of Health research funding and an additional $80 million generated through state and university grants.

“Since many of these scientists are already pretty big-name people, they already have grants from NIH and the National Science Foundation that adds about another 100 million worth of research to the total equation,” he said.

Funding is key, he said, because it determines how many ideas can go forward as projects. “Out of 100 things you work on in the lab, only one becomes a project,” he said. “We are bringing the gap by providing the funding to bring some of these projects to fruition, translating basic research to affect actual people.”

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