Asia Crisis

U.S. teams aim to grow ears, skin for war wounded

WASHINGTON, April 17 (Reuters) - Teams of university scientists backed by U.S. government funds hope to grow new skin, ears, muscles and other body tissue for troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department said on Thursday.

The $250 million effort aims to address the Pentagon's unprecedented challenge of caring for troops returning from the war zones with multiple traumatic injuries, many of which would have been fatal years ago.

"We've had just over 900 people, men, some women with amputations of some kind or another since the start of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Many have also suffered burns, spinal cord injuries and vision loss.

"Getting these people up to where they are functioning and reintegrated, employed, able to help their families and be fully participating members of society, this is our task," he said.

Under the initiative, the Pentagon launched the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine made up of two teams -- the first led by Wake Forest University in North Carolina and the University of Pittsburgh and the second led by Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Cleveland Clinic.

Their goal is to develop within five years therapies for burn repair, wound healing without scarring, facial reconstruction and limb reconstruction or regeneration.

Scientists with the university teams said such work was already being done and had been demonstrated on animals. Clinical trials on people have not started.

Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general, expressed hope the therapies could help badly injured troops within just a few years.

He showed a photo of a Marine with burns covering his head. He said the Marine had undergone 40 operations, but there was currently no way to rebuild his ears or nose.

Using methods being studied, the Marine's stem cells could be used to grow more cells that are then painted on a scaffold in the shape of his ears and nose. After an incubation period of weeks, the biodegradable scaffold would be implanted on the skin and absorbed, ultimately becoming fully functional, Schoomaker said.

"We're embarking on a new generation of research that's going to redefine the Army and military medicine as we know it today," he told reporters at the Pentagon.

Roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a dramatic increase in blast trauma among U.S. troops. Medical advances have kept many of those service members alive, requiring long-term specialized care from a military health system under fire for miring troops in bureaucracy.

The Defense Department has dedicated $85 million to the regenerative health project. The rest of the funding comes from other parts of the federal government, state agencies and academic institutions. (Reporting by Kristin Roberts; Editing by Peter Cooney)