Rice and UT-Houston join DOD push for regenerative medicine

April 17, 2008

The Department of Defense (DOD) today announced that Rice University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston will spearhead the search for innovative ways to quickly grow large volumes of bone tissue for craniofacial reconstruction for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The program is part of a broad, $250 million national effort to rapidly apply the latest techniques in regenerative medicine to the treatment of wounded soldiers. DOD officials today unveiled the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM). AFIRM is made up of two civilian research consortiums working with the U.S. Army Institute for Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

"This is by far the largest federal investment ever made in regenerative medicine, and it's no coincidence that the Texas Medical Center is playing an important role," said Rice University President David Leebron. "Rice and UT-Houston's collaborative research in this area is at the forefront of this rapidly growing field."

One of AFIRM's civilian consortiums is led by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. The other is led by Rutgers University and the Cleveland Clinic.

Rice bioengineer Antonios Mikos and UT-Houston surgeon Mark Wong are overseeing the Wake Forest consortium's research on craniofacial reconstruction. Mikos is Rice's J.W. Cox Professor in Bioengineering, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and the director of Rice's Center for Excellence in Tissue Engineering. Wong is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the University of Texas Dental Branch at Houston. Rice and UT-Houston will receive $2 million over the next five years to spearhead the development of new tissue engineering technologies, novel reconstructive surgical techniques and innovative drug therapies that can help wounded soldiers.

"Dr. Mikos and Dr. Wong have been pioneers in the development of new tissue-engineering technologies that can be used for facial reconstruction for victims of catastrophic injury," said Dr. Peter Davies, executive vice president for research at UT-Houston.

Tissue engineering is a fast-growing biomedical discipline that aims to quickly grow human tissues like bone, cartilage and skin that can be surgically transplanted without risk of rejection. Tissue engineers often use a patient's own cells as the basis for new tissue, placing them on biodegradable templates and stimulating them with chemical and physical cues.

"All of our efforts, both here in Houston and around the nation, are aimed at moving forward immediately to deliver therapies to the thousands of soldiers who have been wounded in this time of war," Mikos said.

Mikos, a founding editor of the journal Tissue Engineering and president-elect of the North American Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society, is one of the world's foremost experts on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Technology investigated by the consortium partners in craniofacial reconstruction will include the use of biopolymers as matrices for tissue regeneration and the delivery of different drugs to prevent infection and promote wound healing. Additional tissue-engineering projects that employ adult stem cells to reconstruct lost appendages such as ears and noses will also be investigated.

"We are honored to be part of this consortium, which will allow us to bring to fruition many years of collaborative research with Rice University and apply novel techniques to aid the reconstruction of devastating facial defects sustained by our military personnel," Wong said.

Traditionally, it can take years for laboratory breakthroughs to be translated into clinical practice. Mikos said it is vital for engineers and doctors to work together closely -- at every stage of research -- if cutting-edge technology is to be quickly transitioned to patients.

Wong, the director of the UT Dental Branch at Houston's Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery residency training program, holds surgical appointments at Memorial Hermann Hospital-Texas Medical Center, Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital, Ben Taub General Hospital and The Methodist Hospital. He said AFIRM's bench-to-bedside research efforts in Houston will help ensure that the technology developed for the military will also benefit civilian victims of trauma.

Davies said, "This is the sort of groundbreaking translational research that is being conducted in UT-Houston's new research facility, the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences, a state-of-the-art clinical research facility funded by one of the first (Clinical and Translational Science Awards) made by the National Institutes of Health."

The long-standing partnership between Mikos and Wong is the foundation for the research. This partnership has been rewarded with several grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation and industry. It has also provided the basis for a joint educational program combining oral and maxillofacial surgery residency training at UT-Houston with a doctorate in bioengineering at Rice.

Thanks to an existing relationship between the military and the UT Dental Branch's oral and maxillofacial surgery residency program, the military's own trauma surgeons will get firsthand experience with all the new facial reconstruction techniques developed and tested by AFIRM. Under the residency program, surgeons from both the Army and Air Force spend time in Houston gaining experience in trauma management.

"We are fortunate to have a close relationship with UT-Houston where we can get experience with wider variety real-world trauma situations, similar to those we would see in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Capt. Curt Hayes, chief resident of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Lackland Air Force Base's Willford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio. "This new grant presents the opportunity for improving battlefield management and outcome for hard-tissue injuries that are sustained by our military members."

Each of AFIRM's civilian consortiums was awarded $42.5 million over a period of five years. In addition, the two consortia are bringing local public and private matching funds amounting to more than $180 million that will be added to their research budgets -- for a total of more than $250 million available for research.

Rice and UT-Houston are two of the 46 member institutions in the Texas Medical Center (TMC), one of the world's largest medical complexes. TMC institutions conduct more than $1 billion worth of research and see more than 5 million patients each year.

"Rice and UT-Houston's AFIRM research program calls for doctors and bioengineers to work side-by-side to rapidly translate new discoveries from the laboratory to the operating room," said Rice Provost Eugene Levy. "This is an outstanding example of the kind of joint, tightly interwoven research that will be greatly facilitated and that Rice plans to conduct with UT-Houston and its other TMC partners in the new Collaborative Research Center slated to open in mid-2009."

UT-Houston President Dr. James Willerson said, "This is a most significant endeavor and is a tribute to the strength we can achieve through collaboration in the Texas Medical Center."
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