BOSTON — Scientists are growing ears, bone and skin in the lab, and doctors are planning more face transplants and other extreme plastic surgeries. Around the country, the most advanced medical tools that exist are being deployed to help America’s newest veterans and wounded troops.
In Los Angeles, surgeons used part of Michael Mills’ forehead to rebuild his nose after a bomb disfigured him in Iraq. In Pittsburgh, doctors used an experimental therapy from pig tissue to help regrow part of a thigh muscle that Ron Strang lost in a blast in Afghanistan. In Boston, scientists are making plans for the first implants of lab-grown ears for wounded troops after successful experiments in sheep and rats. In San Antonio and other cities, doctors are testing sprayed-on skin cells and lab-made sheets of skin to heal burns and other wounds.
The ingenuity is impressive: One product was developed from foreskin left over from circumcisions.
Much of this comes from taxpayer-funded research. Four years ago, the federal government created AFIRM, the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a network of top hospitals and universities, and gave $300 million in grants to spur new treatments using cell science and advanced plastic surgery.
“The whole idea is to bring all these researchers together to develop these great technologies that were in early science to eventually be ready for the troops,” said AFIRM’s recently retired director, Terry Irgens.
Now those who served are coming home, and projects that once had been languishing in labs are making strides and starting to move into clinics.
Mr. Strang, a 28-year-old Marine sergeant from Pittsburgh, is among those benefiting. He lost half of a thigh muscle to shrapnel, leaving too little to stabilize his gait. “My knee would buckle, and I’d fall over,” he said.
Now, after an experimental treatment at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “I’m able to run a little bit” and play a light football game with friends, he said. “It’s been a huge improvement.”
It’s one example of the “new medicine” in the works for troops. The Associated Press conducted more than a dozen interviews and reviewed the latest medical research to measure the progress and extent of novel treatments under way for wounded warriors. The results point to some surprising feats of surgery and bioengineering.
Up to a thousand troops might need an ear, and prosthetics are not a great solution. A rod or other fastener is required to attach them to the head. They don’t look or feel natural, and they wear out every couple of years. A matching ear grown from a patient’s own cells would be a huge improvement.
“People have been working on this for 20 years” but haven’t been able to overcome obstacles to making it practical, said Cathryn Sundback, director of the tissue engineering lab at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Her lab thinks it’s found the solution. Using a computer model of a patient’s remaining ear, scientists craft a titanium framework covered in collagen, the stuff that gives skin elasticity and strength.
They take a snip of cartilage from inside the nose or between the ribs and seed the scaffold with these cells. This is incubated for about two weeks in a lab dish to grow more cartilage. When it’s ready to implant, a skin graft is taken from the patient to cover the cartilage and the ear is stitched into place.
Scientists in her lab have maintained lab-grown sheep ears on those animals for 20 weeks, proving it can be done successfully and last long-term. They also have grown anatomically correct human ears from cells. These have been implanted on the backs of lab rats to keep them nourished and allow further research. But that wouldn’t happen with ears destined for patients — they would just be grown in a lab dish until they’re ready to implant.