The University of Pittsburgh’s innovative tissue regeneration research is part of an effort dedicated to healing war-wounded soldiers.
By Gregg W. Ramshaw
In a research breakthrough, Dr. Jorg Gerlach of the University of Pittsburgh has discovered a way to spray a patient’s own skin stem cells onto a wound or burn to help grow a layer of new skin with very little scar tissue. Meanwhile, his colleague Dr. Charles Sfeir is hard at work in another dramatic medical advancement, developing bone “powder” that, mixed with water like a plaster cast, can be formed into a bone to replace one that is damaged or missing.
Pittsburgh is a key contributor to a $250 million Department of Defense initiative to bring hope and new healing technologies to injured soldiers.
The research studies in tissue engineering and cellular therapy organized by the School of Medicine-University of Pittsburgh are renowned for the amazing medical advances. So it’s no wonder that the Pittsburgh Team recently joined with the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine, with the apropos acronym AFIRM, in a vast national effort to repair and heal the wounds of war as well as those of injured and ailing civilians. In April 2008, the Department of Defense announced a massive $250 million medical research program to find ways to artificially stimulate the healing processes in the human body.
“Pittsburgh is known throughout the world for its cutting-edge research that is providing real hope for dramatic advances in human health,” says University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. “And it’s fast becoming one of the nation’s leaders in developing organ and tissue technologies as viable clinical therapies. Our involvement inAFIRM will allow Pittsburgh to continue to progress in this vitally important area.”
The AFIRM program consists of two national consortia of academic and industrial partners. With a $42.5 million grant from the U.S. Army, the University of Pittsburgh and its partners form one consortia that is addressing the needs of the injured soldiers. The Pittsburgh consortium consists of 19 organizations that include the Allegheny Singer Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon University. The research will focus on five areas targeted by AFIRM: burn repairs, craniofacial reconstruction, rebuilding, regenerating or transplanting limbs, wound healing without scarring and compartment syndrome, the inflammation that often follows injury or surgery.
While Alan J. Russell from the University of Pittsburgh was thrilled to see Pittsburgh and its partners win the Defense Department award, especially since there were 28 highly-qualified contestants, “The real win is to do great science, publish it and make it mean something in products – and get it into people,” he says. In other words, applying research into real life situations is the ultimate goal.
A Dream Team
Johnny Huard, PhD, is an example of the multi-disciplinary approach taken by the AFIRM. A professor in Pitt’s departments of orthopedic surgery, biochemistry, bioengineering, molecular genetics and pathology, he leads 50 people working on adult stem cell research at the University of Pittsburgh. He expects to receive $2 million from the AFIRM grant to advance his study of “compartment syndrome,” the death of muscle tissue resulting from pressure generated as a result of injury. In many cases, the outcome can be amputation. Huard is developing a technique by which the victim’s own muscle stem cells are injected to regenerate tissue lost by injury.
“By using adult stem cells, we bypass the rejection process encountered by using stem cells from other sources,” Huard says of the procedure which has civilian applications in sports medicine and the treatment of diseases like muscular dystrophy.
In all, 29 research teams in the Pittsburgh consortium are involved in AFIRM with scientists who have already conducted more than 10 clinical trials, including three with the Army, that have placed tissue-engineered implants in more than one million people.
Lieutenant General Eric Schoomaker, Surgeon General of the Army, says the project is “bringing together a dream team of some of the greatest minds in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.”
The dream team’s accomplishments, along with those of others in military medical research, are never without application in the private sector – they will heal civilians injured in accidents or stricken with serious disease. They will also create industries, businesses and jobs.
The University of Pittsburgh’s links to private industry are strong. The University collaborates with long-established firms like Pfizer and Bayer, as well as less well known and younger firms with names like ALung and Compact Membrane Systems.
”The promise of regenerative and rehabilitative medicine is truly astounding,” says Dr. Russell. “Just as remarkable is that success in the laboratory, where all such endeavors must begin, will drive the clinical translation as well as the commercial activities that will lead to products.” And products and patents can reap large financial rewards for the research teams and institutions that develop them.