What if modern medicine could make it possible for people to regrow limbs? That’s just what Dr. George Christ’s tissue engineering lab at the University of Virginia is seeking to do.
From people who are hurt in car accidents to wounded warriors who have sustained disfiguring and disabling injuries on the battlefield, Christ said the research that his team of undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and research staff is conducting could benefit people who have suffered various levels of trauma.
“We don’t want to give false hope or pretend like we have a solution right now,” Christ said. “But if we can solve military-related injuries caused by things like battlefield explosions, then we can apply those same principles to the civilian population.”
One promising regenerative medicine technology involves creating tissue by prompting stem cells to grow a layer of muscle progenitor cells on a scaffold. The scaffold is then stretched in a bioreactor to mimic muscle movement and is implanted in the subject’s body at a site where a significant amount of muscle has been lost.
“It’s a muscle-repair construct that creates a beneficial regenerative environment that hopefully results in new muscle formation and improved function,” Christ said.
"There’s no metric or recipe for growing a limb, but you shouldn’t give up on the hard stuff because of tight timelines.”
“Can we make enough muscle to reconstitute an arm? Not right now,” Christ said. “But we should move forward with the things we can treat and then scale up. It’s an incremental process.”
According to Christ, interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to the possible success and longevity of his research.
“This is not a problem we can solve on our own. It requires a depth of understanding and a breadth of expertise that goes beyond anybody’s lifetime or resources,” Christ said. “We’re trying to leverage all the talent here at UVA and work with like-minded people around the country and the world to see what we can do to move things forward.”
Christ admits that this endeavor, if successful, could take years, even decades, before patients actually benefit from it. But that possibility of success is enough motivation for him and his team to keep working.
“There’s no metric or recipe for growing a limb, but you shouldn’t give up on the hard stuff because of tight timelines. You have to think long-term and about the big picture,” he said. “Take these soldiers who are 25 years old and have been injured in the line of duty. If there’s a possibility that this research could enable them to walk again when they’re 60, that’s still a pretty big deal.”
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