Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pentagon Study to Regrow Soldiers' Limbs

The first phase of the Pentagon’s plans to regrow soldiers’ limbs has been completed—to an extent. Scientists have been able to create undifferentiated cells from human skin.

The goal of Phase Two is to turn those undifferentiated cells into muscle tissue. Muscle tissue was chosen because it’s the type of tissue that’s routinely regenerated; ie, working out in the gym causes muscle tissue to develop, as any dedicated body builder knows. Laying about, such as in the case of invalids, causes the muscles to become weak. In the body, if muscle tissue is traumatized past a certain point, and is destroyed, a scar results. Scientists are hoping that by creating muscle tissue outside the body, they can avoid this scarring process.

To convert the undifferentiated cells into muscle cells, the cells must have myosin and actin—two proteins key to forming cellular cytoskeleton which will eventually build muscle filaments. Once this is accomplished, the cells will be placed into a matrix of tiny biomaterial threads. A this point the scientists aren’t certain whether collagens or fibrinogens will be part of the thread. This is one of the many mysteries in the process that will, ultimately, be solved.

Cellthera Inc. and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) just got a one-year, $570,000 grant from Darpa, the Pentagon’s research division, to grow the new tissues. "The goal is to genuinely replace a muscle that’s lost," stated biotechnology professor Raymond Page. "I appreciate that’s a very aggressive goal." And it’s only one part in a more ambitious Darpa program, Restorative Injury Repair, that aims to "fully restore the function of complex tissue (muscle, nerves, skin, etc.) after traumatic injury on the battlefield."

As in many cases of medical and scientific advances, what starts on the battlefield may, ultimately, end up in the operating suite of an aesthetic plastic surgeon. Facial surgery got its modern-day start by Vilray Blair, the first chief of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Washington University who treated wounded WWI soldiers with facial injuries, setting the standards for craniofacial reconstructive procedures, many of which were later affirmed in face lifting procedures.

Based on that history, one wouldn’t be surprised that, once the Pentagon is able to recreate limbs lost in war, we might be able to recreate breasts lost to cancer and, ultimately, replace aging parts of our faces as well.

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