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Medical breakthrough could help 'repair' wounded soldiers.

Wounded troops returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan could, in time, benefit from potentially groundbreaking medical research in tissue repair.

A newly created form of protein known as "elastin" may one day be used to build replacement body parts--such as eardrums, parts of the stomach and intestines, bladders and blood vessels. This technology would allow surgeons to "build a person from the molecular level," says Kenton Gregory, chief cardiologist at the Oregon Medical Laser Center, in Portland, Ore.

The U.S. Army Combat Casualty Care program so far has funded $20 million worth of research work at the medical laser center, Gregory says in an interview.

"The military has had 500 amputations, plus several thousand wounded who could benefit from tissue repair," he says.

Elastin is being studied as a possible means to "put injured soldiers back together," Gregory explains. After nearly a decade worth of research, his lab has found the human gene for elastin, he says. Elastin is a durable, stable protein that makes up human tissue. The thinking is that the body won't reject replacement parts that have the patient's own DNA.

"Based on natural protein, we developed a whole series of tissue-repair parts for the stomach, esophagus, skin, arteries," Gregory says. "We are developing cell therapy program to help regenerate tissue."

The lab also pioneered "laser-fusion" technology for instantly sealing and healing issue, he adds. Laser welding science has been around for 20 years, but is still an experimental technology. It is scheduled to begin medical trials in the United States in the coming months.

He says he is confident that the Food and Drug Administration will approve the technology to treat human patients. "We've been repairing pigs for about five years. It's about ready to be transferred safely to people."

Getting FDA certification, especially for high-risk devices, requires years of research and animal trials.

Elastin-based tissue also could be employed to make a "bridge" to attach prostheses. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is interested in this technology, and has held discussions with scientists from the Oregon Medical Laser Center, says Gregory.

If the medical trials are successful, the tissue replacement should be ready for use in civilian hospitals in 2006. Military hospitals may follow suit, he says.

This year, meanwhile, the Army's Combat Casualty Care program will introduce in military hospitals a "tissue fusion" device developed by the Oregon center.

This is a badly needed technology, says Gregory. "Most tissue is repaired with needle and thread--it's 16th century technology."

Organs such as the liver, the kidney and the spleen can't be sowed together because the sutures pull right through, he explains. "With this new technology we can quickly heal and seal."

The Army asked the Oregon scientists to develop user-friendly technologies that a combat medic with just a high-school education can employ in the field, he adds. "This device can be used with minimal training."

Gregory also created the so-called "chitosan" bandage, which stops hemorrhaging in less than two minutes, he claims. The company that manufactures the bandage, HemCon Inc., based in Portland, was co-founded by Gregory. He says the Army plans to equip every soldier headed to combat with a chitosan bandage.

The bandage is made out of shrimp shells, he adds. "They needed something to stop bleeding at the point of injury."

According to Army studies, nearly 50 percent of combat deaths since World War II have been attributed to hemorrhages. Of those, about half could have been saved if timely, appropriate care had been available.

The Army also has a demand for dressings that can treat bleeding during surgery, Gregory says. "A big area for us now is biodegradable implantable bandages that will stop bleeding during surgery. That will reduce the need for blood transfusions."
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Title Annotation:UP FRONT
Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Publication:National Defense
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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