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The Future of Military Medicine: Regrowing Limbs

What if people were able to regrow missing limbs just like a salamander? Could the future of treating amputations include warfighters regrowing their own muscle, bone, and nerve tissues?

Those were some of the questions posed during a Military Health System Research Symposium in Kissimmee, Florida, late last month.

“We’re not quite there yet,” said Army Lt. Col. David Saunders, extremity repair product manager for the U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity, Fort Detrick, Maryland. “What we’re trying to do is develop a toolkit for our trauma and reconstructive surgeons out of various regenerative medicine products as they emerge to improve long-term outcomes in function and form of injured extremities.”

Saunders was part of a session focusing on the research being done on extremity regeneration, part of a larger theme of regenerative medicine at the symposium, which brought together clinicians, researchers, academics, and administrators to focus on the unique medical needs of the military.

Saunders said while there’s been progress in the areas of using synthetic grafts to start the regrowth of muscle, nerve, vascular, and connective tissues, it’s still not the real thing. “We would like it to be as restorative as possible, resist infection, and be durable,” he said. “This is going to be implanted in young people who may go on to live another 60 to 70 years.”

One researcher is using fillers to bridge the gap in damaged bones. Stephanie Shiels, PhD, with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, talked about her research to develop a synthetic bone gap filler that heals bones and reduces infection by infusing those grafts with a variety of antimicrobials.

“We know that it reduces infection,” Shiels said. “Other things to consider include adding a bulking agent to help regenerate bone.”

Other research focuses on regrowing muscle lost in traumatic injuries, and recovering and preserving nerves. Besides treating deep tissue wounds, research is being conducted into the skin’s regenerative properties.

Jason Brant, PhD, University of Florida, has turned to a mouse to help the military reduce scarring of injured warfighters. He said the African spiny mouse has evolved a capability to lose large parts of its skin when a predator tries to grab it, allowing the mouse to escape and live to recover. The mouse is able to recover scar-free in a relatively short amount of time. Brant said during the symposium that he believes a certain protein in the mouse could be the key, but he’s still researching how it could apply to humans.

“Warfighters and civilians alike suffer large surface [cuts] and burns, and these result in medically and cosmetically problematic scars,” he said. “The impacts of these scars are staggering. The ability to develop effective therapies will have an enormous impact not only on the health care system but on the individuals.”

Another way to reduce scarring involves the initial treating of wounds. Army Maj. Samuel Tahk, a research fellow with the Uniformed Services Health Consortium, provided samples of biocompatible sponges he’s investigating for their ability to promote skin healing and reduce scarring. “It provides a scaffold to start regenerative growth,” he said. “This could simplify patient care and also reduce costs.”

While the field of regenerating body parts is still new, Saunders believes it will be the future of wounded warrior care. “Extremity wounds are increasingly survivable due to the implementation of body armor and damage control surgeries,” he said. “[There are] many wonderful things emerging in the field of regenerative medicine to restore form and function to our wounded warfighters.”

Editor’s note: This story was adapted from materials provided by News.