UConn Professor Announces Goal to Regrow Human Limb in 15 YearsMarine Sgt. Liam Dwyer of Litchfield was on patrol in Afghanistan when he tripped an improvised explosive device. The explosion sent shrapnel into all of his limbs, breaking his right leg and causing nerve damage and fracturing his right arm. It also destroyed his left leg.
“I had never seen a person folded up on themselves like that,” Sgt. Aaron Denning, who was with Dwyer at the time, later recalled in published accounts. “His foot was up by his shoulder and we thought he was dead.” Dwyer survived but most of his left leg had to be amputated.
For a soldier, his injuries are not uncommon.Thanks to advances in battlefield medicine, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom would most likely have died from their wounds had they been sustained in earlier conflicts, returned from the battle with missing limbs. Close to 2,000 U.S. troops have suffered a major limb amputation as a result of injuries sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Coinciding with Veterans Day in November, the University of Connecticut, which Dwyer attended for a year before joining the Marines, will be launching a potentially revolutionary scientific project aimed at helping wounded warriors as well as others who have lost limbs or experienced nerve damage. Called the Hartford Engineering A Limb Project (HEAL) and run by UConn Health’s Institute of Regenerative Engineering, its goal is to “regenerate a new joint in seven years and regenerate a limb in 15 years,” says Cato Laurencin, a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering/biotechnology and the founding director of the institute.
Laurencin’s method for limb replacement does not focus on mechanical or robotic limbs but rather on organic, flesh-and-blood ones that would grow on the person that receives the treatment.
It may sound like the stuff of science fiction or comic books, but the Institute for Regenerative Engineering has already received significant funding from sources such as the State of Connecticut and the National Science Foundation. Last year, Laurencin won a National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award for his work in regenerative engineering. The award, which is given for high-risk research with potentially high rewards, included a $4 million grant.
Laurencin refers to the goal of limb regeneration as a “grand challenge” and though optimistic, is not unrealistic about his team’s prospects.
“To a certain extent, this is a moonshot endeavor. We have some of the tools, but obviously it’s going to take a while and we don’t have all the answers to make it occur right now,” Laurencin says. “When Kennedy announced that we were going to the moon, I’m not sure the technology to be able to successfully carry enough air to take someone to the moon and back was there in the early 1960s, but it was there by the end of the 1960s.”
That doesn’t mean the HEAL Project is a shot in the dark; Laurencin and his colleagues have already made some pretty spectacular advances in the field. “We’ve now been able to create a number of the different types of component tissue that we think about in terms of a limb,” he says. “We have been able to create engineered bone. We have been able to create engineered ligaments [a feat highlighted in 2012 in National Geographic’s “100 Scientific Discoveries that Changed the World”]. We have worked in the engineering of skin, tendon, cartilage, nerve, blood vessels . . . we have the components already at our disposal to make a joint and a limb.”
These regenerations are accomplished through the creation of a bioengineered matrix that would be implanted in a patient. The matrix is armed with different types of molecules, including morphogenetic proteins, which enhance regeneration. A matrix Laurencin developed to regenerate tissue damaged in ACL tears—one of the most common knee injuries—has started human trials in Europe.
UConn Professor Announces Goal to Regrow Human Limb in 15 Years
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After Dwyer’s leg was amputated, he underwent extensive rehabilitation. Before his injury, one of his passions was car racing but military doctors told him he’d never be able to drive a stick shift because he could no longer feel the clutch under his foot.
In recent years there have been advances in the functionality of prosthetic limbs; last year during a TED talk—since viewed millions of times online—Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer who had lost part of her left leg in 2013 during the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings, was able to perform a rumba with intricate footwork. She could accomplish this thanks in part to a cutting-edge prosthetic called the BiOM T2. Designed by MIT professor Hugh Herr, who had both his legs amputated after a mountain climbing accident, the electrically powered prosthetic was designed to imitate the natural propulsion a real human ankle provides.
Because it would be an organic, biological limb, the regenerated limb Laurencin hopes to develop would be markedly different from the devices other scientists like Herr have created and are developing. To work, it may require a little help from the animal kingdom.
Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults. It’s a superhero-like power the creatures have that scientists are still striving to better understand. For the HEAL Project, researchers at UConn are working with researchers at the University of California, Irvine who have studied the regenerative process in salamanders and have looked at ways this process could be mimicked by humans.
In addition, Laurencin is studying early regenerative processes in other animals and humans who have more regenerative ability the younger they are—infants as old as two have been known to regrow fingertips. “We’re looking at what happens in early development and what are some of the molecules and factors that are expressed in early development because a lot of things are going on then,” he says.
Laurencin is dedicated to regeneration that occurs within the body. “I really believe in the body as a bioreactor,” he explains. “We work to create systems that we then place in the body and we allow the body to react as a body reactor to foster the end regeneration event. We don’t grow whole areas of tissue and then place it in the body; we actually create the means by which the body can allow itself to be able to regenerate.”
Laurencin has the kind of colorful background normally found amongst movie or TV characters. A native of the inner city of Philadelphia, he was attracted to the local boxing gym because it was something of a safe haven in the neighborhood. That lead to a lifelong fascination with the sport that he later fostered by serving as a ringside doctor, a position he held in several marquee matchups including the 1995 bout between boxer Mike Tyson and Buster Mathis. This past August he traveled to Venezuela as the physician for the USA Boxing Elite Men’s National Team for the American Boxing Confederation Championships.
He has degrees from Princeton, MIT and Harvard Medical School, and a curriculum vitae that includes nine single-spaced pages of awards. He is extensively involved in mentoring underrepresented students; for this work he received a Presidential Award for Excellence from President Barack Obama. The Society for Biomaterials recently named the Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D. Travel Fellowship, which will support underrepresented minorities in the field, in his honor.
Pioneering joint and limb regeneration would be the crowning success in a life full of achievements but Laurencin is not undertaking the project alone. In addition to scientists and students at UConn, the HEAL Project is bringing together a large team of scientists and experts at other universities and institutions, including the aforementioned researchers at the University of California, Irvine as well as Harvard and Columbia universities.
Regenerative engineering is a new discipline that Laurencin and his fellow scientists are hoping to pioneer. The discipline requires cooperation between scientists with different specialties. “This combines advance material science, stem-cell science and physics in the form of electrical power that’s necessary to regenerate complex tissues,” Laurencin says.
Despite the sophistication and ambitious nature of his goals, Laurencin has never lost sight of what he’s working for. “Every month I get a phone call from an individual or a family in which someone has lost a finger, or they’ve had a tear in their shoulder rotator cuff, and they ask me do I have any solutions right now for them to consider,” he says. “While we have a grand goal of limb regeneration and knee-joint regeneration, we believe what we find along the way will be important for patients in the very short term.”
In stubborn defiance of the doctors’ predictions of his abilities, Dwyer began driving a stick shift again. He also started racing and now does so professionally. He was able to connect a prosthetic heel to the clutch of his car with a series of simple methods; he started with Velcro then went to a fastening system. He relies on his instincts and the feel of the car when it comes to applying and removing pressure. The system worked well enough to allow Dwyer, along with co-driver Tom Long, to win the two-hour, 30-minute IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race at Lime Rock in Lakeville in May 2014.
Laurencin is mindful of veterans like Dwyer and the implications his work can have on their lives. “One of the impetuses, at least for me personally in thinking about this great challenge, is looking at the fact that this is a significant issue for our wounded warriors,” he says. “Working toward solutions that can help wounded warriors is something that is very special to me and, I think, all the members of my group.”
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