PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — First stop: the spray gun that shoots out
skin cells. Next, the blind man who “sees” by using his tongue.
Finally, a shake of a marine’s transplanted hand.
The nation’s top military officer today took a look at some of the
Pentagon’s wildest medical research projects. But once the
seemingly-sci-fi demonstrations at the University of Pittsburgh Medical
Center were over, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen
voiced some concerns. The technologies and techniques seemed promising.
But when would they be available, really, to help wounded veterans? And
why did the corporal with the replacement hand have to rely on his
girlfriend’s mom to find out about his revolutionary treatment?
In 2008, the Department of Defense and academia set aside $250
million to set up a consortium to fund bleeding-edge research into the
science of rebuilding human muscle, tissue, and minds. Today, that
Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM) project is
beginning to show results. Whether those results will come in time for
the tens of thousands of wounded veterans returning from Afghanistan
and Iraq remains an open question.
“That’s the challenge you always have with research: How do you get
research to full production levels,” Mullen said. “I’m satisfied we
can. I’m not satisfied we’re doing it rapidly enough. And one of the
things I take away from this trip is to go back and see if I can push
from where I am to roll this out more rapidly.”
One of the researchers here, Dr. Douglas Kondziolka, mentioned it
might be another decade before his treatment of transplanted brain
cells might be wildly available to troops who have suffered in war. The
research was proceeding methodically. And approval for large-scale
tests on human brains takes forever to obtain. Mullen seemed less than
enthused. ‘”10 years doesn’t satisfy any of us,” he later said.