One of the biggest traumas you can experience, either as a civilian or a service member, is a burn injury, especially over a large surface of your body. The skin is raw and painful. And if it doesn’t heal quickly — if it’s spread over too large an area — the victim can die from infections.
Now a solution is at hand, thanks to research funded by the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Since 2008, AFIRM has pumped about $100 million into accelerating research that uses regenerative medicine to heal wounded servicemen and women, with another $50 million committed to the project.
“We’re getting really good at keeping wounded warriors alive. What we are trying to do with regenerative medicine is to get them back to form, function and appearance,” said Dr. Wendy Dean, a senior medical officer with the institute.
AFIRM began after a colonel in the Army’s Medical Department heard a lecture by Wake Forest University researcher Anthony Atala. After Atala described how stem cells could regenerate tissue and organs, the talk sparked the Army’s decision to fund an array of academic and industry research projects on regenerative medicine for their wounded soldiers.
One such AFIRM-funded project that has reaped a usable technology is ReCell, known generically as a stem cell gun or stem cell spray. The portable device, about the size of paperback book, takes a small piece of skin from the burn victim and processes it to release stem cells. Those cells are then sprayed in a solution across the burn area with a specially adapted syringe. The result is a thin layer of skin that starts to heal and protect the wound.
“When you have a wound (such as a burn), and the skin cells are gone, it heals from the outside in,” Dean said. “But with this, you are seeding that healing potential across the entire wound.”
The “epithelial” stem cells become skin and recruits other cells from the body to help the healing process. The result is a thin layer of skin that protects the open wound and becomes thicker over a few weeks, making multiple skin grafting operations unnecessary.
As with most of AFIRM’s programs, a private company funded by the military did most of the research. For the ReCell device, it was Avita Medical, an Australian company that started looking for a solution to burn wounds after a 2002 terrorist bombing of a Bali nightclub flooded area hospitals with victims.
It can help with large-scale disasters by allowing treatment of numerous burn victims with minimal hospital time.
“ReCell slots directly into a gap in the portfolio of medical countermeasure products,” said Andrew Quick, Avita Medical’s VP of Research and Technology.
Basically, it can help with large-scale disasters by allowing treatment of numerous burn victims with minimal hospital time.
Much like research funded by NASA — think cordless vacuums and freeze-dried food — the result of AFIRM’s programs are available for public use. This has created an ironic situation with ReCell, which is now available in Europe, Canada and Australia, but not in the U.S. Because the FDA is backed up with so many devices and drugs pending approval, ReCell will not be available in the U.S. until 2017 at the earliest.
Even a wounded warrior who is sent to a U.S. military hospital overseas — the Landstuhl, Germany, Regional Medical Center, for example — cannot use ReCell.
“We need to have FDA approval for use in any U.S. medical facility,” regardless of location, Dean said.
Despite the FDA delay, the ReCell device is a tangible result for the military’s AFIRM. While research had been conducted at the University of Pittsburgh on a stem cell gun for skin as early as 2008 — resulting in a National Geographic video released in 2011 that incorrectly exaggerated its healing powers — the earlier version required heavy processing equipment and a gun-like device tethered by plastic hoses.
ReCell, however, has the “desirable key attributes” of being small, easy to use and durable, said Quick, the research vice president.