Soldiers of fortitude
Statistics show that more than half of amputations in the United States each year are caused by diabetes and its complications. With diabetes on the rise, the number of amputations is expected to increase.
Additionally, amputees are returning home from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of Aug. 1, 2008, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan had resulted in amputations for more than 1,200 service members, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Almost 75 percent had major limb amputations. In the Iraq War alone, the rate of limb loss for U.S. troops reportedly is higher than in any conflict of the previous century except Vietnam.
A soldier’s story
As a squad leader and truck commander for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris led reconnaissance missions every day to gain information about the enemy and to ensure the roads were safe for travel by his fellow soldiers. On one particular day in 2007, as Staff Sgt. Harris and his squad navigated the desolate desert roads, their convoy was suddenly rocked by a deafening explosion. Of the four Humvees in the convoy, Staff Sgt. Harris’, the third in line, was tossed in the air like a toy truck by a bomb hidden beneath the road they were traveling on. They’d been ambushed.
Staff Sgt. Harris’ memory of the ordeal is hazy as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
“I could hear what I thought was gunfire. As I looked down, I saw my body smoking,” he said. “It hurt.” His uniform and body armor had melted to his skin.
Staff Sgt. Harris was burned over more than 30 percent of his body. He lost three fingers and both of his ears. He also lost three members of his platoon on that fateful day. But what remained intact were the courage, determination and faith the 34-year-old husband and father of four is famous for.
After waking from a 48-day-long coma in a hospital in Germany, Staff Sgt. Harris was flown to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he received treatment at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center. It was there that he met Dr. Wolf.
Steven Wolf, M.D., is professor of surgery and the Betty and Bob Kelso Distinguished Chair in Burn and Trauma Surgery at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, chief of clinical research for the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research and director of the Pediatric Burn Program at University Hospital. Dr. Wolf is working with several high-profile U.S. researchers in the field of tissue regeneration, including Stephen Badylak, D.V.M., Ph.D., M.D., of the University of Pittsburgh; Anthony Atala, M.D., of Wake Forest University; and C. Mauli Agrawal, Ph.D., of The University of Texas at San Antonio. The researchers are studying a substance derived from pig bladders that has the potential to regrow human tissue.
The substance Dr. Wolf calls “Regenerative Medicine Extracellular Matrix” has been nicknamed “Pixie Dust” by Dr. Wolf’s colleagues at Brooke Army Medical Center because of its seemingly magical abilities. When tested in animal models, the powdery substance grew an entire organ. “Researchers took a uterus out of a dog, made one in the lab, put it back in and had puppies,” Dr. Wolf said. “The powder seems to work by attracting stem cells to a particular region of the body. It then has the potential to stimulate the growth of all types of tissue including bone, muscle and skin. It’s very exciting,” he said.
While a patient at Brooke Army Medical Center, Staff Sgt. Harris learned about Dr. Wolf’s work with this technology. He was quickly intrigued and although he had already undergone seven surgeries for his injuries, Staff Sgt. Harris valiantly volunteered to have the Pixie Dust piloted on him.
“I figured that if this is something that might help me as well as others, then it’s definitely worth trying,” Staff Sgt. Harris said.
In May 2008, Staff Sgt. Harris became the first human in the world to have the Extracellular Matrix surgically implanted in his body. Dr. Wolf placed it on Staff Sgt. Harris’ left hand where he was missing two fingers. Dr. Wolf concentrated the powder on the area where Staff Sgt. Harris’ index finger used to be. After a second procedure in October 2008, Staff Sgt. Harris’ index finger has grown about half an inch.
Dr. Wolf said he has plans to enhance the process. “We may need to do some pre-seeding of the powder by taking the cells out of the human subjects, isolating them with the Extracellular Matrix and then putting them back in the body. This will provide a much higher concentration and potential for growth.” He also hopes to grow tissue that is structurally supported by bone for better functionality. “We’ll need to monitor patients with X-rays to ensure that bone growth is occurring,” he said.
Potential of Extracellular Matrix
More than 30 additional wounded soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center have been identified as possible candidates for trials with the Extracellular Matrix. Dr. Wolf said the substance could have potential with patients who have lost limbs to diabetes as well as those with birth defects and organs affected by cancer. He also hopes to make the surgery available in the near future to children in the Pediatric Burn Program at University Hospital.
“I have one word for Dr. Wolf and his team, and that’s, ‘wow,’ ” Staff Sgt. Harris said. “I actually have more sensation in my finger now. It’s pretty amazing.” Staff Sgt. Harris said he hopes his finger will continue to grow long enough to someday support a prosthesis. “I plan on seeing my kids go to college and get married,” he said. “I want to be able to hold my grandkids someday.”
Thanks to the courage of patients like Staff Sgt. Harris and the outstanding research of Dr. Wolf, those who suffer limb loss, whether from injury or illness, may someday have the chance to regain some or possibly all of what’s missing.
“What is most satisfying is to see these soldiers partake in and benefit from our research that could someday benefit all mankind,” Dr. Wolf said.
Staff Sgt. Harris agrees. “I feel I have a new calling,” he said. “I want to help others. I love being able to serve my country.”
Together, they’re on a mission to assess, test and hope for the best that this “magic” dust might bring to so many in need.