ARLINGTON, Va. — The Pentagon is launching a multimillion dollar initiative to regrow skin, muscles, ears, noses and even new limbs for wounded servicemembers, using their own stem cells.

The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or AFIRM, is a five-year, Army-led cooperative program using cutting-edge stem cell research to treat badly wounded servicemembers.

“You often hear people talking about a conflict having a ‘signature wound,’” Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army’s surgeon general, told reporters at a Thursday news conference announcing the new institute. “Well, the signature weapon of this war is blast.”

Some of AFIRM’s earliest work will involve growing new skin and muscle tissue for troops who have been burned in explosions, as well as new noses and ears, Schoomaker said.

With 82 percent of all combat-wounded members having injuries to the extremities and 30 percent having facial wounds, “we’ve been wrestling with how to treat the many problems,” Schoomaker said.

The key to regenerative medicine is stem cells — cells that are not preprogrammed to become a certain organ or kind of tissue but have the potential to become any kind of cell.

Researchers first believed the only place stem cells could be found were in human embryos. That led to controversy, as the only way to obtain the precious cells was to destroy the embryos. Researchers also learned the primitive stem cells were prone to develop out of control, turning into cancers instead of the cells they were trying to coax them to build, Schoomaker said.

Then, a breakthrough — “the cells we’re talking about exist in our [adult] bodies,” Schoomaker said.

“All the parts of your body, tissues and organs, have a natural repository of cells that are ready to replicate when an injury occurs,” said Dr. Anthony Atala, a surgeon and director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest, N.C., which is participating in the initiative.

For example, the human body routinely regenerates bone marrow and liver cells.

The process involves using the Marine’s stem cells to coat a three-dimensional, surgical-grade silicon “scaffolding” of his nose and placing it in a sterile ovenlike structure that duplicates the warmth and moisture of the human body to incubate for a couple of weeks. Inside the oven, the cells continue to generate and fix themselves over and into the mold.

“It’s like baking a cake,” Schoomaker explained.

When that process is complete, “you can plant that (regenerated tissue) back into the same patient, thus avoiding rejection,” Atala said.

Clinical trials with many patients involved are about two years away, Schoomaker said, but researchers are already working on “compassionate cases” with servicemembers, such as a badly burned Marine for whom they are growing a new ear.

AFIRM will have a $250 million budget and fall under the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command at Fort Detrick, Md., which in turn is part of the U.S. Army Medical Command.

The new institute will work in conjunction with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio, Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of Pittsburgh.

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