In this article we will look inside the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (positively named AFIRM), which is a research and development institute into regenerative medicine for military patients of the US Military setup by DARPA.
I first came across AFIRM back in 2013 after researching deeply into Limb Regeneration for Humans after the appalling injuries of the Boston bombings.
The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine has a bit of history but seems have have been setup back in 2008 as a $250 million five year preliminary project into pushing forward research into human limb regeneration, stem cell research and regrowing organs.
Basically fast tracking scientific development, so instead of research gathering molecular dust on the shelf inside a lab, the know-how could be applied to the military patients without seeking long haul approval with the FDA.
This was code named ReGenesis with the aim of investigating the initial work. Since Dolly the Sheep in 1996, which I remember well, as I was in Edinburgh, Scotland at the time doing my Masters at Napier University. I remember the news and the buzz of cloning the first sheep. This break through was followed-up with the first stem cells two years after.
So these kinds of developments have given scientists the confidence to bring them closer to their goal.
DARPA stands for Defence Advance Research Projects Agency. They work on a number of controversial projects, with a reputation of making the impossible possible with far out concepts to see what can be learned.
Recent ambitious projects is funding research in what it would take to build a starship with fast than light interstellar ability under a 100 year research program by the beginning of the next century.
So the people (DARPA) whom gave the internet which has transformed our lives for the better, are going to give us Warp drive and help amputees regrow lost limbs.
The deputy director of DARPA’s defence office said that the ability to regrow severed limbs could evolve from studies into the speeding up the healing of burns and tissue wounds. Back at a conference in 2008 he said:
“[The] ability to regenerate limbs is present in many species, and even humans can regenerate a normal liver after removing as much as 90 percent of it during surgery…”
We will now look in more detail into the background of AFIRM and what they are currently doing. I would say what they have achieved so far is a great success as some of their research has started to bleed through into the public domain.
A good example of this is new innovative technologies for the treatment of burns that can now replace skin grafting, using a special skin stem cell spray gun.
Once such company, RenovaCare, that is trying to get their technology approved, is currently not available in the USA due to subject of bureaucratic FDA approval.
I believe this is perhaps research that has started to spill over into the public domain from the AFIRM’s research above.
When I was first looking into the background of what research had been done for limb regeneration in humans after the Boston bombing, I came across the following website at Boston University. This started a process of eventually uncovering the process of what DARPA and the US Military have been working on for sometime.
Along with this is the research of Dr. David M. Gardiner and Dr. Susan V. Bryant at their limb regeneration research lab of the University of California, Irvine. He mentioned to me in an email once when I was asking about his work, that the DoD (Department of Defence) were funding his work so that we can eventually be in a better position to help amputees than the primitive methods we have now.
Dr Gardiner is a professor at the above university as a developmental cell biologist. He is researching with salamanders, and feels there is a response and signal when injuries happen. Following this concept, when muscles and tissues have been damaged in an amputation, there are cells at the site of injury that release signals giving instructions to call in reinforcements.
Gardinar’s work is based on decades of research and he is convinced that limb regeneration is possible. A human embryo during development, there is a similar regenerative pattern that is involved when it grows its arms and legs.
DARPA Limb Regeneration History
It would seem this goes back to 2002 at least, where initial work was done on limb regeneration concept. However, it was in around 2005 when Scientists like Dr Steven Badylak started researching what could be done better for military patients who had come home with devastating horrific injuries.
Such as single and multiple limb loss, severe burns and other disfiguring and debilitating injuries.
They started investigating into salamander limb regeneration, stem cells and newts, along with regenerative medicine in general. They concluded that the validity of the research being done by scientists was immense and would eventually lead to something really big one day.
The reflection was instead of focusing on improving technologies for prosthetics for amputees, why not instead just go for the real thing and see if it could be possible to grow back what was lost.
The ultimate prize would be full regeneration like what the Newt does but instead of just researching and waiting 15 years until the science and technologies become available, why not try to implement some of this now.
Looking at initial stepping stones what would start to improve and help the patient’s lives, that would eventually lead to full blown regeneration.
The Plan To Regrow Limbs – Stage One Complete
The initial phase of DARPA/Pentagon’s plan to regrow soldier’s limbs was completed around 2009 or 2010. At least up to a point. DARPA issues funding to different Universities with the aim if they can achieve the specific goal in mind then those scientific institutes would get more funding. The Cellthera Inc. and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) were given a $5.7 million grant to grow new tissues.
Scientists managed to turn human skin into the equivalent of a blastema. This is a cluster of undifferentiated cells that can develop into new body parts. The next step was for researchers to turn that cellular mass into a size of square inch of potential muscle tissue.
The goal is to genuinely replace muscle that has been lost. This is part of a even more bigger project funded by DARPA in what is called ‘Restorative Injury Repair’. This is the aim of fully restoring the function of complex muscles, nerves, skins and tissues, after traumatic injury on the battle field.
The initial project completed in around 2013 which is now called AFIRM I. The next phase of the project is called AFIRM II which is taking what was initially learned and to expand and focus on in those areas. I noticed that key areas where advancements have been made and successes is new novel treatments of burns and limb salvage treatments.
- Treatment Of Burns
- Instead of using skin grafting which is not always effective and very painful, a spray gun is used where the patient’s own skin stem cells are used. These are incubated in a chamber until the skin stem cells are in a quantity and ready to be used. The burned area is sprayed with the stem skin cells with an ECM membrane placed over it. The end results is a power healing taking place of the burn, even also most full recovery. This is being used on 2nd degree burns but is expected the technology will develop to treat 3rd burns as well.
- Limb Salvaging Techniques
- Another area is the focus on developing better methods to help the surgeon treat and save the limb that has been injured. This includes the use of extracellular matrix (ECM) scaffolding applied to the injured site. There have been many success stories where soldiers whom have lost a large percentage of their muscle in explosion blasts where 80% of the strength in the leg has gone which in the past would have resulted in amputation. However, a new methods have been developed using ECM that allows the lost muscle to be regenerated by injecting the area with ECM in a liquid form resulting in the muscle and even skeleton tissue being generated. I think this is one of the areas that was been worked on before AFIRM was created due to a 90 million research project which triggered a massive research program evolving into AFIRM.
- Arm Transplants
- A lot of research has gone into the transplantation of body parts from deceased donors. One aspect of this has been arm transplants, which seems to have been a huge success with the research into stem cell and regeneration that allows the body to accept such limb transplants. Since the heavy use of drugs can have all kinds of implications such as undermining the immune system that are used to stop the body rejecting the limbs that have been attached. It may sound weird to have someone else’s arms but it means they can go and live their lives with new flesh and blood limb attachment. It also means that the research to achieve this will contribute with people whom have had their limbs severed and getting them surgically reattached. This is not always possible but this kind of research will not only help with limb donor transplantation but also with reattachment of the patient’s own limbs.
You can read more about the ECM and limb regeneration at the article I wrote here. Also check out the FAQs of the AFIRM website where they even discuss a frequent question of using stem cells to regrow arms and legs.
I am sure that there will be further developments happening in the near future as things get more advance. I will likely add to this article and perhaps follow up with a new article with AFIRM II giving more detail.
I mentioned this in another article but I thought it would be worth mentioning here again. The regeneration fantasy has now become reality and its worth taking a moment to pause and reflect. Perhaps looking how were are absorbing all this as a society.
Today we point out how to tell our children to brush their teeth and look after themselves well. Which is very important but its also not true any more to say once your teeth are gone they are done forever. We can just grow them back, in fact dentists are now integrating stem cell technologies as new ways are brought forward to heal and treat teeth. There is even suggestions that fillings and the drill will be obsolete very soon.
It is also not true of losing your toes, fingers, ears, genitals or even a limb. We are not there yet with limb regeneration but it is certainly coming. But why stop there?
In the same way we take out car to the garage or interestingly called ‘body shop’ to get new parts so the car is as good as new when we drive off again. This is what will be happening with humans in health and treatments. At the moment its very much a case of patching things up until the body fails completely.
Medical science has come a long way and is very good at saving a person’s life. But the ability to fix things like limb loss or organ damage, we are not doing very well at. However, over the next 20 years this is going to fundamentally change and with it society, with the road to immortality and the singularity event.
Right now, the people and scientists behind AFIRM discussed above are doing such a wonderful service for our brave men and women in the military. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in 1500+ U.S. military amputees and many more have lost eyesight or suffered burns and spinal damage.
The purpose of this website is my intention to bring awareness and speed up the process in demand and development. We all want to help such people with life changing injuries, caught up in wars and terrorism like Brussels and Boston bombings, along with wounded people whom are in service to your country in the military.
Prosthetic technologies have certainly advanced a lot in improving the quality of their lives but it will never able to replace what was originally lost. If only we could make them whole again. Well there is some good news on the horizon as now we can.
What do you think about this article and what the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine are doing?