"The goal of the center is to rapidly move new technologies from the laboratory to patients so that we can improve the quality of life for our veterans as they return from the wars the United States is fighting," said Center Director Barbara Boyan, the Price Gilbert Jr. Chair in Tissue Engineering at the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.
The center will leverage the expertise of Georgia Tech researchers in musculoskeletal biology and regenerative medicine to quickly move tools that are clinically valuable, safe and effective from laboratories to use in trauma centers. To reduce the amount of time from invention to clinical use, engineers and scientists in the center work in teams that include a clinician with experience in combat medical care and a medical device industry partner.
Researchers in the center will initially will focus on ways to improve the healing of wounds, segmental bone defects and massive soft tissue defects. Traumatic injuries that affect the arms, legs, head and neck require technologies for treatment at the time of injury and in the ensuing days and months.
"These combat injuries are complicated to treat because they are large and typically infected, so even determining when a soldier should be treated for optimal recovery is a challenge," said Boyan, who is also the associate dean for research in Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering. "It is not known whether a regenerative therapy will be most effective if used immediately following injury or at some later time after scar tissue has been established at the wound site."
By developing models that accurately reflect the complex aspects of injuries sustained by soldiers in combat, the researchers will be able to test assumptions about when to employ specific strategies and how to ensure their effectiveness. The models must also allow them to examine the use of technologies on both male and female patients, and on complex tissues that consist of nerves, a blood supply and multiple cell types.
To enhance tissue repair and regeneration following a traumatic injury, the researchers are focusing their efforts on stem cells. Even though stem cells have tremendous potential for repairing such defects, effective methods do not yet exist for delivering them to an injury site and of ensuring that they survive and remain at that site long enough to impact the regeneration process.
"Clinicians currently inject stem cells into a vein and hope that the cells will migrate to sites of injury and remain at those sites long enough to participate in the repair process. While some cells certainly do migrate to injury sites, the actual percentage is very small and those that arrive at the site do not remain to engraft with the host tissue," explained Boyan.
This limited effect may be the result of the injection process, according to Boyan, so researchers in the center are developing ways to protect the cells from damaging forces they might encounter when inserted into the body. But pprotecting the cells during insertion is just the first step toward improved tissue repair. The researchers must also examine whether the stem cells will turn into cells typical of the implanted tissue and if they produce or should be paired with molecules that can enhance the healing of the implanted tissues.
Additional projects in the center include assessing tissue viability, preventing the growth of bone in the soft tissues of the body and improving pre-hospital care of orthopedic injuries. Since effective treatment of traumatic injuries is an important goal for the general public as well as the military population, the researchers also hope to adapt their technologies for use in hospitals.
Support for the center is provided by the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research’s Orthopedic Trauma Research Program, the U.S. Department of Defense and industry.