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WASHINGTON — Medical experts already know how to stabilize and treat a servicemember who has lost an arm on the battlefield.

Now, they want to figure out how to grow that arm back.

Private sector and military research teams are joining forces to explore clinical applications of cutting-edge cell therapies, to deal with some of the most severe injuries emerging from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The group, the Soldier Treatment and Regeneration Consortium, has even set a goal of regenerating a full human finger within five years, based on experimental treatments already being studied.

“We’re not there now, but you have to look ahead and be hopeful,” said Dr. Alan Russell, executive director of the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative. “The bottom line is, this is a tough problem, but there is a need now for this kind of work.”

One of the techniques used by PTEI researchers involves using what’s known as an “extracellular matrix scaffold” derived from the urinary bladder of a pig. It holds the functional and structural proteins that serve as a framework for all tissues and organs.

Because these proteins are generally found among species, they do not cause immune rejection when implanted. Instead, ECM scaffolds improve upon the normal healing process, promoting formation of site specific tissue rather than scar tissue after injury.

Defense officials have noted that servicemembers in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have the highest survival rate of any U.S. war, with more than 90 percent of wounded troops surviving their injuries.

But that also means many troops are surviving severe burns and amputations, leaving them with lifelong health issues.

Russell said the partners in the new consortium have been studying techniques such as tissue regeneration and cellular-level healing for years. Bringing them together under one collaborative group gives a chance for “the best minds in this field” to share not only their ideas but their long- term planning.

Along with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, the consortium includes several university research centers and private firms spread throughout the country.

Russell, who also serves as director of the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, said the focus of the consortium will be putting their research so far into use in clinical sessions.

He expects teams of researchers will focus on a small number of wounded troops, working with them to rebuild muscle and tissue lost to shrapnel or bomb burns.

Last week, the coalition received $1 million in federal funding to help coordinate their planning. Russell said PTEI spent about $70 million on its tissue research last year alone, but the federal money is an important recognition of the medical effort.

“We need to shift the desire to move even faster on this,” he said. “The goal is to start that clinical experience this year, and the funding will be the launching point for that.”


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