Carnegie Mellon professors work with Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine

Carnegie Mellon will be involved with the two academic groups to form the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), which will develop new methods for healing wounded soldiers. According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Defense, the creation of the AFIRM was announced at a briefing at the Pentagon on April 17.

AFIRM consists of two consortia, one led by the Rutgers University and the Cleveland Clinic, and the second headed by the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh, as stated in a Carnegie Mellon press release.

Each consortium received $42.6 million from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command (USAMRMC), along with the Office of Naval Research, the National Institutes of Health, the Air Force Office of the Surgeon General, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The two Carnegie Mellon professors involved in the program are Jeffery Hollinger and Newell Washburn. Hollinger is a professor of biomedical engineering and biological sciences, and director of Carnegie Mellon’s Bone Tissue Engineering Center (BTEC). Washburn is a chemistry and biomedical engineering professor. Hollinger is part of the Rutgers-led consortium, headed by Joachim Kohn, the Board of Governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers, and George Muschler of the Cleveland Clinic.

Hollinger is the director of the Craniofacial Reconstruction program, which is one of the five research programs under this consortium. The Carnegie Mellon press release stated that Hollinger’s research will focus on developing treatments for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffered injuries to the face and jaw.

Hollinger’s research thus contributes to the overall aim of the project, which is to help wounded soldiers lead a normal life again.

“[Our goal] is to shorten the time and cost of treatment needed to facilitate the return of such severely injured patients back to a productive life,” Kohn said.

Kohn explained that the consortium will develop a variety of treatments using advanced biomaterials, novel surgical procedures, and cell biology, including the use of adult stem cells, to work toward this goal. The project is not limited to developing treatments for wounded soldiers.

“While our focus is initially on the wounded members of the armed forces, everything we do will have utility in the civilian sector as well,” Kohn said.

He explained that such regenerative therapies could also be used for victims of accidents or shootings. Moreover, they can even be used for treating people who have suffered serious burns.
The second consortium has a similar focus; it is headed by Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and Alan J. Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Washburn, who is a part of this consortium, will focus his research on developing techniques for scarless wound healing in soldiers.

“My group is developing a set of polymer matrices, mostly gels, that will locally control the inflammation process in wound healing,” Washburn said. The polymer matrices will be synthetically designed and resemble extracellular matrices in the body as closely as possible.

Washburn explained that wound healing in healthy adults is a regulated, step-by-step process. It starts with the formation of a blood clot at the site of the wound.
The next stage is the inflammatory stage, where the wound appears red and is painful. In the proliferation phase, cells from the surrounding tissue start repairing the extracellular matrix in the damaged tissue. The last stage is called the remodeling phase.

“In remodeling, that matrix gets turned into a durable scar, which unfortunately is inferior to the native tissue that was present originally,” Washburn said.
Washburn’s group is therefore trying to change events that occur earlier in the healing process to prevent scar formation. The group is specifically targeting the inflammatory phase and wish to inhibit this phase.

“The idea is that we’ll try and steer the system toward more of a regenerative outcome by promoting healing early on rather than inflammation,” Washburn said. Washburn and his team are trying to achieve this goal by using polymer matrices that interact with repair responses present in the body. Repair responses that come into play during the inflammatory phase include factors that cause the migration of cells into the area of damaged tissue and factors causing cells to divide.

Like Kohn’s work, Washburn’s research will also have applications outside the military field. Washburn is hoping to use similar techniques to help diabetic patients who develop ulcers on their skin due to impaired healing responses.

Although the project is still in its early stages, both Kohn and Washburn have high hopes for the success of their project.

“Our goals are to have an effect on our wounded service members within the first five-year period of this grant,” Kohn said.

“We hope that we will reduce the need for amputation of arms and legs when patients suffer severe tissue trauma to their extremities.”