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January 21, 2011

Physician-researcher helping soldiers as part of the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine

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A procedure currently performed all over the world for cosmetic purposes might also improve wound healing and limb function for soldiers who are severely hurt and scarred during combat. Dr. Adam Katz, plastic surgeon and researcher at the University of Virginia Health System, will conduct research in this area under the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM). White House officials will announce the formation of AFIRM, which has received more than $80 million for research, on Thursday, April 17 at 1:30 p.m. EST.

Katz, who is the only Virginia doctor to be a part of AFIRM, will study the use of fat grafting for wounds and severe burns to improve their healing and/or to minimize their associated scarring. In one envisioned study, burn patients who have received skin grafts will receive an autologous fat transplant, in which their own fat tissue will be harvested, cleaned, and finally re-injected beneath the skin-grafted area. Katz believes the skin grafts may heal better with the placement of fat grafts, reducing and/or remodeling scar formation and mitigating scar contractures (tightness) which can limit the motion of limbs.

“Traditionally fat grafting has been used to fill wrinkles or augment lips and other similar structures.  More recently, a growing a number of physicians have noticed that fat grafting seems to have beneficial effects on surrounding tissue.  Even more, recent published literature suggests that injecting fat around a wound helps it to heal better,” said Katz. “My goal now is to systematically and rigorously examine the potential effects of fat grafting on wound healing and scarring using controlled, blinded prospective studies to see if an old procedure can be used in a new way.”

Katz’s research also has a second component. He will extract and concentrate stem cells from fat tissue and explore their use (with or without biocompatible scaffolds) to engineer new skin or soft tissue to replace damaged dermis and subcutaneous layers of the skin. Katz believes that when soldiers receive materials made from their own cells, they won’t reject the implanted skin or tissue.

“I have read statistics about amputations and have seen the disfiguring scars that our soldiers carry. It’s clear that they are surviving more than they did in previous conflicts because of technology and state-of-the-art emergency medical care, but they are experiencing significant morbidities and functional deficits in terms of damaged and/or lost limbs and disfiguring facial trauma that results from explosive devices,” Katz said. “I feel extremely privileged to be a part of this extensive and concerted effort to improve the lives and futures of our soldiers when they come off the battlefield.”

AFIRM is comprised of two civilian research consortiums working with the US Army Institute of Surgical Research. Each consortia has been awarded $42.5 million to be distributed among member institutions, including UVA Health System. UVA Health System is part of the Rutgers University and the Cleveland Clinic Consortium.

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