Healing War Wounds

Thursday, July 21, 2011 - 8:47am

Research could yield new skin for veterans scarred in battle.

Cutting-edge research at Brooke Army Medical Center could mean new skin for those burned at war.

Close to 200 studies are going on at BAMC, and about 30 of those relate to burn patients.

The ground breaking findings are bringing hope to many.

"Flames consumed my right arm and my head," explains Retired Army Master Sergeant Todd Nelson.

In 2007, he was hit by a suicide bomber while serving his country in Afghanistan.

His face was crushed in the blast, and burned to the bone.

To close the gaping holes and prevent infection doctors took large chunks of skin from Nelson's body to graft onto his face.

It's now four years, and 43 painful surgeries later.

"It takes a toll on you," says Nelson. "And it takes a toll on your family."

That toll is what's driving researchers at the Battlefield Health and Trauma Research Institute.

Dr. Robert Hale says advances in medicine are saving more soldier lives than ever before, but their quality of life is never the same.

"They come home with horrendous deformities and problems after their life has been saved," says Hale. "So now our next question is, how do you make their life better? How do you make it worth living?"

The answer, Hale says, lies in regenerative medicine.

Clinical trials, set to being in September, will take a small sample of the patient's own tissue, and grow it in a lab.

Within just 40 days, the tissue expands into a large sheet of skin to heal wounds.

For patients like Nelson the skin regeneration technique will mean fewer surgeries and better results.

"We feel regenerative medicine generates hope -- for our soldiers, for the families of our soldiers, and for the nation in general," said Hale.

As soon as 20 years from now doctors may even be able to replace Nelson's prosthetic ear with a real human ear, regrown from his own skin.

"Replacing facial features like eyelids, the nose, the ears, and the lips," explains Hale. "And we'll replace the facial features that move: muscles and nerves. So it's a step-wise process."

"Researchers are breaking down barriers every day," says Nelson. "They don't stop. Just like the troops -- they don't stop, just because they hit a barrier. Neither does this institute."

Dr. Hale expects the skin regeneration technique to be approved by the F.D.A. for widespread use in about five years.

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