The Pentagon is joining with universities and hospitals in a 250-million-dollar research institute to develop ways to help wounded soldiers regenerate skin, muscle and even limbs from their own stem cells, officials said Thursday.
The army's surgeon general said he envisions the day when adult stem cells will be harvested before a soldier goes into the battle and then used to regrow new limbs within days of suffering a combat wound.
"The new institute will work to develop techniques that will help to make our soldiers whole again," said Lieutenant General Eric Schoomaker, the army surgeon general.
"We'll use the soldiers' own stem cells to repair nerve damage, to re-grow muscles and tendons, to repair burn wounds, and to help them heal without scarring," he said.
Techniques to salvage and reconstruct damaged limbs, hands, fingers, ears and noses, and reconstruct damaged craniums will also be developed, he said.
The new Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine will fund and focus the research efforts of two consortia of universities and hospital research centers.
One is led by Wake Forest University and the University of Pittsburgh, and the other by Rutgers University and the Cleveland Clinic.
The Pentagon will provide 85 million dollars over five years; members of the consortia will put up another 80 million dollars; and another 100 million dollars will come from grants through the National Institutes of Health.
"As far as we know, this is the largest US government-funded research consortium in the field of regenerative medicine," said Schoomaker.
"Not only that, we're bringing together a dream team of some of the greatest minds in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, some represented here with us today," he said.
Among them is Dr. Tony Atala of Wake Forest University, a pioneer in the field who has grown bladders from adult stem cells.
"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 said.
"And some of the strategies that are used are to take some of those cells out of the body, just with a very small piece of tissue.
"And then you can tease the cells apart, those specific cells that have that potential. Then you grow those outside the body in large quantities," he said.
The process takes about four to eight weeks, he said.
The living cells can then be painted over a scaffolding made of biodegradable material and shaped in the form of a nose or ear, and attached to the face.
As the cells grow, the material is absorbed by the body, and the new nose is formed.
The initial projects are likely to be modest -- extending a severed finger in one case, and regrowing a destroyed muscle in another man's thigh.
But officials said they hope the new techniques can be used to regrow the skin of burn victims and replace ears or noses, and eventually more complex challenges like limbs.
Schoomaker says the new technologies promise to revolutionize military medicine.
"We are the source of our own regeneration, with very low risk, -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- for example, conversion into cancers," he said, referring the higher risk of cancer in more primitive stem cells.