Like no war before, the war in Iraq has seen unprecedented numbers of injuries due to surprise bomb attacks. And like no other war before, troops are often surviving those attacks, though many of them lose limbs or suffer severe burns. That has led researchers to create the Soldier Treatment and Regeneration Consortium with the goal of growing back body parts, like ears and fingers, and treating burns.
Researchers say the advancements could have a broad impact well beyond the battlefield. The consortium, which includes the backing of the military, received $1 million in funding from the federal government last week.
"It's a starting point and it will enable us to get organized and prepare and hopefully treat one or two patients this year and generate clinical experience," said Alan J. Russell, director of the University of Pittsburgh's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and executive director of the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative.
The new consortium's five-year goal is to create a fully functioning finger.
For about five years, researchers at the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative have been running the National Tissue Engineering Center, a Defense Department-supported institute that strives to improve the survival of those with life-threatening injuries.
But the need for speedier developments became apparent as American military forces became injured in Iraq, Russell said. According to the Department of Defense, 6 percent of the more than 16,000 soldiers wounded in Iraq have required amputations.
"The need is very, very easy to see unfortunately," Russell said.
Other partners in the effort include the Texas-based U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the North Carolina-based Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Russell said at least one patient has already been identified as a candidate for some of the procedures that researchers are pursuing. Those procedures include delivering certain kinds of molecules in a powdered form to injured body parts in hopes that the body will begin to heal itself, and growing certain tissues outside of the body that later can be put inside the body.
Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest center, said it's already possible to create some simple body tissues. He said the key will be learning how to combine those smaller tissues to form something larger, such as a finger or an ear.
Atala said the best option for amputees right now is prosthetics, which have come a long way.
"There are good options, but obviously, there's no better option than having your own tissue," Atala said.