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Despite the millions of dollars the Defense Department has invested to develop face transplantation surgery for injured troops, the military’s regenerative medicine research aims to make it obsolete.

Instead of replacing a severely disfigured face with that of a donor, the military is researching methods to regrow facial features from scratch using a patient’s own cells.

“We think of transplants as a bridge until we can regrow the tissue,” said Col. Janet Harris, director of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program at the Army Medical Research and Material Command, which currently manages $4.4 billion in federal funding.

“Once we can do that, there would be no need for face transplants.”

Established in 2008, the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine is partly funding the military’s face transplant program and research. It joins doctors from the military and 28 public and private medical centers for stem cell research focused on using patient and donor cells to reconstruct and reshape the body and reduce transplant rejection.

Research is focused in five main areas: limb repair, craniofacial reconstruction, burn treatments, scarless healing, and help for compartment syndrome repair, a condition related to inflammation after surgery or injury that can lead to increased pressure, impaired blood flow, nerve damage and muscle death.

Successfully regrowing the entire face could be years off because of the complexity of its features and functions, Harris said. Growing new noses, ears and eyelids “is much closer to fruition,” she said.

Clinical trials are under way at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas to regrow skin for troops burned in combat.

That and advancements in facial prosthetics and other surgical techniques have greatly expanded reconstructive options in recent years.

— Charlie Reed

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