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Dr Robert Hale: Regenerative Medicine for Facial Scars & Burns


March 02, 2011

Robert G. Hale, D.D.S., is Commander of the US Army Dental and Trauma Research Detachment, Consultant to the Surgeon General for dental research, Director of Craniomaxillofacial Research for the US Army Institute of Surgical Research, and Representative to the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

Colonel Hale received his doctorate from Emory University School of Dentistry in 1981 and completed his Doctoral Certificate in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery in 1989. He regularly lectures on craniomaxilofacial injuries and regenerative medicine and has published extensively in professional journals.

In 2010, COL Hale was awarded with the Order of Military Medical Merit, the Humanitarian Award-AAOMS, and the Meritorious Service Medal.

COL Hale was only fifteen when he decided that he wanted to work with the face. “The face is the most important body part,” he explains. “It supports all of your senses—eyesight, smell, taste, hearing touch—is your conduit for air and nutrients, and helps you communicate through expressions and speaking. It probably has the highest value to patients, and it responds well to treatment. It’s also a great area to be working on right now because of all of the research opportunities and advancements being made for healing facial wounds.”

After fifteen years of working in private practice, COL Hale became active duty in the Army in 2003. He treated badly injured patients in the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.  In 2004, he returned to America with a new zeal to research and develop better techniques for treating injured soldiers.

As a full-time army medical research specialist, COL Hale focuses primarily on three areas of medical research—biofilm formation, regenerative medicine, and face burns and scars. He uses a combination of his first two research areas in his pursuit of discovering the best treatments for when a face is burned or destroyed. “We’re looking at not just how to better close wounds and treat them, but also how to regenerate skin, muscle, and bone—to rebuild the face and restore both function and appearance.”

Take Action
COL Hale recommends donating to these organizations to help wounded soldiers
  • Wounded Warrior Foundation Helps wounded warriors and their families through unique programs and services.
     
  • Center for the Intrepid 
    A state-of-the-art physical rehabilitation facility for wounded soldiers, many of whom have lost a limb.
  • LISTEN to Dr. Hale

     
     
     

    Biofilm formation is one of the primary causes of infections and scarring. Biofilm occurs when harmful bacteria form communities and construct a barrier protecting themselves from antibiotics and the human immune system. Studies have shown that within six hours, any open wound is colonized with bacteria from the environment, which results in slow healing, infection, and scarring. “One of my major efforts is to reduce the biofilm that occurs on an open wound, to allow better healing and less scarring.”

    COL Hale is working to unleash the body’s own healing potential with the new science of regenerative medicine. He is researching the use of stem cells taken from the patient’s own body to heal and regenerate wounded body parts. For his patients, this means that soldiers who have had their faces burned off could potentially regenerate their skin, nose, and ears—as well as their damaged bone and muscle.  

    The past ten years have shown major advances in the treatment of facial scars, but COL Hale believes that the most significant advances are soon to come. In 2005, the first partial face transplant was performed on a patient in France whose face was ravaged by a dog. Though successful, there are still significant problems with face transplants. Patients who have face transplants are required to take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives to keep their immune system from rejecting their new face. This long-term suppression of their immune systems can lead to life-threatening infections, kidney damage, and cancer. “The patients I’ve talked to about face transplants and our current research into face regeneration have mostly opted to wait until the technology is available to reconstruct their face with their own skin rather than with someone else’s face.”

    COL Hale also treats patients with severe burn wounds, and strives to improve their treatment process. Seventy-seven percent of all burn patients have burns on their face, and eighty percent have burns on their hands. Most of them survive their wounds, but then have to undergo numerous small operations to improve the scars on their face and hands. “Having seen so many patients of mine go through dozens and dozens of operations for incremental improvement, I’ve said that there has got to be a better way. That’s my emphasis in regenerative medicine—to find ways to regenerate the skin and avoid the bad scarring that leads to so much patient discomfort.”

    COL Hale believes that regenerative medicine will be the legacy of the current Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. “I’ve heard it said that the only victor in war is medicine.  And I think this particular war will probably be remembered for the advancements we’ve made in regenerative medicine. It’s for the soldiers that we’re making these advancements, because regenerative medicine generates hope.”

    Last updated: 02-Mar-11

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