Written for Scars1 by Michelle Alford
Colonel Steven Wolf, M.D., is the Chief of Clinical Research for the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research. He’s won numerous awards, including being honored as the San Antonio Business Journal’s Health Care Heroes Outstanding Physician Award and one of San Antonio Magazine’s ‘Best Doctors.’ Newsweek, 60 Minutes, CNN, and National Geographic are among the many publications that have interviewed him about his role in furthering regenerative medicine.
Dr. Wolf’s pursuit of human regeneration began with a simple idea. “We started out with the notion that we could potentially have these guys with things blown up or missing and we would be able to promote the body to completely recreate these parts,” he explains. “The biggest thing we saw with guys coming back early in the war were muscle defects with chunks of muscles missing. We were able to get the skin back with skin grafts, but they didn’t have as much muscles, so then we started thinking, would it be possible to go in and put stuff around the cells and get the muscles to grow back?”
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Small successes encouraged him to research further. “So we tried it on a few guys and some of the muscles grew back. Then the questions I had in my mind are how does it happen, and how can we augment it to happen faster? We discovered that if we put a matrix into a muscle, changes occur to make more muscle.”
Next he tried regrowing appendages, which is more difficult than regrowing muscle. “With muscles you’re dealing with just a homogenous product. There’s all kinds of different stuff in fingers—bones, skins, muscles, and tendons--so you’re dealing with mostly heterogeneous muscles. Our early attempts using a matrix only grew what was closest to the matrix (bone, muscle, tendon). We tried this on the finger and got a little digit but not a full finger.”
He’s hopeful that this will eventually lead to growing entire limbs. “The problem that we’ve got is volume. When a salamander regrows a tail or leg, that’s several million cells. For a human, there are billions of cells. And that all has to be coordinated because the tissues are more complex as well. As humans we’re really just trying to redo what happens for normal development. We grow over years, so the idea of growing a leg in week or two weeks is a little farfetched. What we’ve got to do is understand the process a little better first and then start by applying that process to small things, which is why we chose fingers. The muscle we chose because it’s homogeneous. We’ll move on to more and more complex body parts as we perfect the process and develop new processes to make this happen faster.”
Dr. Wolf is also working on improving ways to heal traumatic skin injuries without scars. “Right now we’re able to heal skin trauma with normal skin grafts taken from the injured person. What we’d really like is if we could have as much replacement skin as we wanted without having to take it from another part of the person. We have several options we’re currently pursuing.”
He’s excited about the future of regenerative medicine. “We’ll be making huge advances in some places we can’t predict. We can’t really tell where it’s going to happen but we know that it will. All kinds of people are doing all kinds of stuff. What I can tell you is changes are going to occur—going to alter people’s lives. Will we be able to grow back an eyeball? Replace entire limbs? Entire systems like the pancreas? That’s our long term goal.”
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