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Pitt and UPMC Take Part in National Battlefield Medicine Research

The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC are taking part in the second phase of a national project to improve battlefield medicine.

The Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM) is a consortium of 30 academic centers led by the Wake Forest Institute for Generative Medicine and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a joint effort of Pitt and UPMC.

Over a five-year period, AFIRM will have $75 million from the Department of Defense and five years to research how to best heal skin burns, arm and hand wounds, and transplant faces and hands of those wounded.

Dr. Rocky Tuan, director of the Center for Military Medicine Research at Pitt, said they’re hoping this new phase will produce as much research as the last, which began in 2008 and ended in July.

In that time, researchers in Pittsburgh alone were able to work on five major projects:

  • Cranial and Facial Reconstruction. Using fat tissue and cells from fat, researchers worked to reconstruct deep gouges and other wounds.
  • Development of a Skin Gun. A major problem doctors have faced with burns is that, once a layer of skin is lost, no one can go under it to replace the skin. Cells then have to be borrowed from somewhere else in the body. Pitt researchers worked on ways to take adult stem cells from bone marrow and use a spray gun to spray cells on the skin and allow it to grow back.
  • Total Hand Transplants. Pittsburgh has become one of the lead centers in the country for hand transplants and researchers have worked on using stem cells to better control immune-rejection once the operation is done.
  • Use of Tissue Derived Matrix. Pitt has worked on healing wounds by taking a piece of tissue, voiding it of all cells and then placing it in a wound site. Research has shown that the blank tissue will elicit cells to migrate into a wound and repair it.
  • Scarring Research. Researchers found a drug normally used to treat cardiovascular problems can also suppress scarring and halt the bad tissue growth.

Tuan said the challenges battlefield doctors face today are very different from past wars because of new, sophisticated body armor.
“All the injuries are really extremity injuries and above the neck. So cranial, facial problems are a big one,” Tuan said. “And so they’ve been able to develop some very sophisticated methods whereby they essentially can reconstruct these defects which could be due to a loss of bone, loss of muscle.”

The AFIRM program requires medical discoveries to be tested and compared so that the most promising therapies and treatments can face clinical trials and benefit civilians and soldiers alike.

Tuan said that before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was little advancement in battlefield medicine research, but military medicine has changed drastically in the last 10 years.

The new round of research will focus on cranial and facial regeneration, extremity healing, skin regeneration from burns and wounds, hand and face transplantation, and genital and urinary regeneration.