Rutgers-led team pursues innovative healing for war wounded

April 17, 2008

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - A consortium spearheaded by Rutgers has been awarded $42.5 million over five years to create one of two academic groups that will form the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM).

The Rutgers-led collaboration will be headed by Joachim Kohn, Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences, and George Muschler, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, Rutgers' principal partner in this undertaking. A second consortium will be managed by Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh with another $42.5 million in funding.

The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC), in conjunction 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 will fund the two consortia.

The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused a marked increase in severe blast trauma, now responsible for approximately 75 percent of all injuries, according to the Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma. Better body armor, quicker evacuation from the battlefield and advanced medical care have made it possible for injured soldiers to survive in greater numbers than in the past. They face the challenge of overcoming severe limb, head, face and burn injuries that can take years to treat and usually result in significant lifelong impairment.

The new institute is a strong national effort to address the unprecedented challenges of caring for men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with multiple traumatic injuries. "Our foremost goal is to alleviate the human suffering associated with debilitating blast injuries and to enable our injured people to return to productive lives," Kohn said.

AFIRM will develop new products and therapies for the repair of battlefield injuries through the use of regenerative medicine. This innovative approach employs biological therapy, including stem cells and growth factors; tissue and biomaterials engineering; and transplants to enable the body to repair, replace, restore and regenerate damaged tissues and organs.

The institute also will dramatically accelerate the rate at which promising biomaterials as well as cell-based and combined regenerative medicine technologies will be converted into new therapies to restore lost tissue and lost function. These products and therapies also will serve civilian trauma and burn patients.

Biomaterials will play a crucial role in developing new therapies for regenerating tissue and healing large wounds. The Rutgers team, with its strength in biomaterials science, has embarked on creating new methods to identify unique biomaterials compositions tailored to support the growth of new nerves, blood vessels, skin, bone or muscle. The team has pioneered the approach of creating libraries of hundreds of new biomaterials allowing the researchers to discover the best choices for specific medical indications. Once identified, the new biomaterials will be distributed to other AFIRM team members for the development of new clinical applications.

The Rutgers approach is based on using experimental screening assays in combination with computational modeling. The Rutgers group will work closely with its Massachusetts Institute of Technology partners who are developing complementary methods of screening large biomaterials libraries for specific properties.

Rutgers research and management activities associated with the institute will receive approximately $1.7 million per year, supplemented over the first two years by $400,000 from the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology to be matched with another $400,000 by the university.

"The Rutgers community welcomes the opportunity to take a leadership role in this important pursuit," said Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick. "What we do here will produce a durable and adaptable resource for the development and advancement of regenerative therapies for injured military personnel as well as civilian victims of trauma."

"The Cleveland Clinic with Rutgers, and our entire AFIRM team, is deeply committed to offering new recovery options for the brave men and women who have served our country," Muschler said. "Our mission, through combined effort, is to translate opportunities that are now available in regenerative biology, as rapidly as possible, into practical tools that can be used on the front lines or here at home."

The Rutgers-led component of the institute will be based on a highly integrated, open network of dedicated partners comprising 15 premier academic institutions and more than 20 leading companies.

In addition to the Rutgers and the Wake Forest-based groups, there will be a third component. The U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio, Texas, will work with the two academic consortia to provide guidance on military medical needs and hosting trials of new therapies.

"New Jersey is the ideal center for the AFIRM research and development effort. We are the home of the global pharmaceutical industry, have a strong concentration of medical device companies and are one of the first states to promote and fund a broad spectrum of stem cell research initiatives," New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine wrote in a letter. "The conception of AFIRM as a partnership between military and civilian academic institutions is a groundbreaking idea for which I commend the USAMRMC."

Most of the partners in the Rutgers-led consortium have been professional colleagues for years with longstanding collaborations. The open network approach ensures that the most qualified experts and performance sites, irrespective of their institutional affiliation or geographic location, will be within reach. An executive committee headed by Kohn and Muschler will direct the research programs of the geographically dispersed network of leading academic research scientists and clinicians, industrial scientists and business managers, and military medical experts.
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The core academic partners are: the New Jersey Center for Biomaterials at Rutgers University, the National Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals Case Medical Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Stony Brook University, Dartmouth College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, Northwestern University, University of Cincinnati, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University. These core partners are supported by a large number of industrial collaborators and participating health care companies that have expressed an interest in the commercialization of new products and therapies emerging from institute's research program.

Established in 1766, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is America's eighth oldest institution of higher learning and one of the nation's premier public research universities. Serving more than 50,000 students on campuses in Camden, Newark and New Brunswick, Rutgers offers more than 280 bachelor's, master's, doctoral and professional degree programs. The university is home to 27 degree-granting schools and colleges, and more than 150 specialized centers and institutes.

Rutgers University

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