New Generation of Healing: Growing body parts

December 24, 2009 So far, 5,000 men and women gave their lives while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there are nearly 1,000 more soldiers who are coming home with devastating injuries. Amputations, skin grafts and plastic surgeries are the painful battles these wounded warriors face on the home front. Now science has a way to re-grow body parts, turning what was once science fiction into fact.

They are forever changed by war.

"An IED went off underneath our vehicle. Next thing you know, we're on fire," said Scott Blaine, wounded in Afghanistan.

"They found me 20 feet away from the truck engulfed in flames," said Joseph Paulk, wounded in Afghanistan.

"I didn't want my wife to see me like this," said Scott Blaine.

"My family was informed they had to come to Germany to basically come say goodbye," said Paulk. Before Afghanistan, U-S Army Specialist Joseph Paulk looked like the boy next door. When he came home he learned his battle against the mirror was only beginning. "Forty percent burns to the face, the shoulder down to my hands, and my hip down to my ankles, then amputations to all 10 fingers because of how severe the burns were," said Paulk. But soon amputations could be a thing of the past as doctors grow new body parts. "We obviously have the potential to create a whole human in nine months," said Steve Badylak, MD, DVM, PhD Director McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine Pittsburgh, PA.

At the university of Pittsburgh, researchers are using powder made from a pig's bladder to re-grow fingers. One man's severed finger went from this … to this. In soldiers with more serious injuries the goal is to at least create finger-tips.

"Stimulating the growth of 10 to 11 mm of length allows them to make change at a grocery store, turn the key in the car, hold a fork," said Steve Badylak, PhD. Other researchers are working to reconstruct faces damaged by war. Doctor Joseph Vacanti is engineering ears in his lab. "Ideally, it would be indistinguishable from a normal ear," said Joseph P. Vacanti, MD.

Already successful in mice, Doctor Vacanti says he plans to implant the first ear on a human within a year.

"We can now envision that some day we can give somebody back their own face," said Vacanti.

At brown university, scientists are working to bring feeling back to injured bodies.

"We're trying to help nerves that are injured grow back in a directed way," said Diane Hoffman-Kim, PhD Associate Professor of Medical Science and Engineering Brown University Providence, RI.

Researchers pour liquid plastic over surrounding cells. The hope is to form a mold that guides severed nerves back together.

"Those live nerves will follow exactly along the tracks where the plastic is that looks just like cells," said Diane Hoffman-Kim, PhD.

From growing new feeling to new faces, other doctors focus on eliminating the need for skin grafts.

"So here we have the bioreactor that's growing the skin," said Hoffman-Kim.

Doctor Anthony Atala at wake forest university takes a piece of skin from a soldier and cooks it in an oven-like device.

"This is basically the same conditions as our body in a box," said Anthony Atala, MD Director Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine Winston-Salem, NC.

Racks stretch the skin until it covers the size of the wound.

"This piece will actually get to be an eight by 10 piece of skin." From civilians out of options, to soldiers whose sacrifice is measured in scars.

"You don't want to be looked at for your loss. You want to be just like any other person around," said Scott Blaine.


"That really takes a toll on a person. It really does," said Blaine.



BACKGROUND: Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are doing what was once though science fiction -- growing more than 20 types of cells including kidney, esophagus, cartilage, smooth muscle, breast, lung and nerve cells. They are working on more than 100 tissue engineering projects, including many to benefit soldiers who have suffered severe injuries during service. Through an $85 million grant, researchers at Wake Forest are teaming up with scientists at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh to develop implantable tissues for injured veterans. These projects will help with injuries like burns, severe wounds, missing ears and fingers, as well as compartment syndrome, which is a persistent type of inflammation that occurs after injury.

The only current solution for missing ears is implanting an ear-shaped device under the skin. Since the device is foreign to the body, this technique often causes problems with infection and protrusion from the skin. Scientists at Wake Forest and other research facilities are developing a porous ear mold that can be covered with a patient's cartilage before it's implanted. The cartilage would be grown in the lab from a patient's cells. "We could harvest patients' own stem cells, grow those stem cells to sufficient numbers in what are called bioreactors, signal those stem cells to turn to his own cartilage cells, and then add them to these special scaffolding materials which are designed to help form the cartilage and then to disappear harmlessly once the ear has taken shape," Joseph Vacanti, M.D., of Mass General Hospital, told Ivanhoe. Dr. Vacanti has been working on tissue engineering, including ears, for over two decades. "Eventually, the hope is we could build a face and not have to do this transplant business and avoid all the problems of the immune system and the donor shortage," Dr. Vacanti said.

Steve Badylak, M.D., D.V.M., Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh was the first to identify the importance of something called the extracellular matrix, which harbors "signaling molecules" that help direct cells to develop into tissue. In the 1980s, he used a portion of a dog's intestine to create an aorta for its heart. Months later, the transplanted intestine tissue had morphed into a vessel that looked very similar to an aorta. Further research by Dr. Badylak and his colleagues has revealed that the submucosa of the intestine can serve as a matrix upon which new, healthy tissue grows. Similar matrixes were found in bladders and livers. In 2005, researchers re-grew the tip of a man's finger using powder from an extracellular matrix in pig bladders, applied every other day for 10 days. They hope to successfully use the treatment to re-grow the fingertips -- or perhaps, entire fingers -- of soldiers who have lost them during their service.


Karen Richardson Public Relations Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (336) 716-4453

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