Grant to Rice, UTHealth will push regenerative medicine

Grant to Rice, UTHealth will push regenerative medicine

Department of Defense backs tissue-engineering research for soldiers, civilians 

A $75 million Department of Defense grant to improve technologies to treat soldiers injured on the battlefield and advance care for the public will involve bioengineers at Rice University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

The five-year Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM) grant announced today by the lead institution, the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, continues a program that began in 2008. Through AFIRM-II, researchers at Rice led by Antonios Mikos, a pioneer in the field of tissue engineering, and Kurt Kasper, a Rice faculty fellow in bioengineering, expect to advance the art of craniofacial reconstruction. The grant funds research at more than 45 academic institutions and industry partners.

From left, Alexander Tatara and Sarita Shah, students in the Baylor College of Medicine Medical Scientist Training Program, with Rice bioengineers Antonios Mikos and Kurt Kasper. The Rice team is part of a new Department of Defense grant to extend the AFIRM program for advanced technology to treat battlefield injuries. The students are engaged in Ph.D. studies in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice, after which they will complete their M.D. studies at Baylor College of Medicine. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Regenerative medicine, which takes advantage of the body’s natural healing powers to restore or replace damaged tissue and organs, is one of many lines of research under investigation at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC).

“We’re very excited to have this opportunity to complete the work we started five years ago on the technologies we promised for the injured warrior,” said Mikos, director of the BRC-based Rice Center for Excellence in Tissue Engineering. He is the Louis Calder Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Rice.

Rice will administer a grant of approximately $1.8 million and draw upon expertise at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “One of the beauties of this program is that it is a true collaboration involving not only people from Rice and UTHealth, but essentially people from all the institutions in Houston,” Mikos said.

Mikos and Kasper will continue to work closely with Mark Wong, chairman of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at UTHealth.

Wong expects the civilian population will benefit from AFIRM-II even before its military clients.

“The Department of Defense does not have the necessary funds to develop a product from conception through testing to initial and full clinical trials,” he said. “Halfway through AFIRM-I, they came to that realization and encouraged the investigative teams to look at commercial partnerships that will help us develop products.”

Implants made of biocompatible material will help heal soldiers wounded in the battlefield and civilians as well through research at Rice University and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The implants hold open a space for a more permanent repair. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Wong said that would likely result in civilian trials before treatments are adopted for battlefield use. “The military is very sensitive about using technologies that are still considered experimental to treat soldiers,” he said. Consequently, treatments would likely be submitted for approval to the Food and Drug Administration and available to civilians first, he said.

The Rice and UTHealth laboratories are also working with specialists at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands. “Our collaborators there have a lot of expertise in implantology, in craniofacial implants and especially in ceramic-based materials,” Kasper said. “The goal is to develop an injectable and bioresorbable calcium phosphate cement that can be used to facilitate bone regeneration in the craniofacial skeleton.”

“We’re not only emphasizing our strengths, but also building alliances with other groups and institutions,” Mikos said.

Terms of the grant require that discoveries by the partners be tested and compared so the most promising therapies can be brought to clinical trials.

The first phase of AFIRM resulted in clinical studies of face transplantation, minimally invasive surgery for craniofacial injuries, a lower-dose anti-rejection regimen after kidney transplantation, scar reduction treatments, fat grafting for reconstructive surgery and new treatments for burns.

A student at Rice mixes a batch of bone cement that can be used in craniofacial reconstruction. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Along with facial and skull reconstruction by Rice and UTHealth, AFIRM-II researchers will focus on restoring function to severely traumatized limbs, skin regeneration for burn injuries, new treatments to prevent the rejection of transplants such as face and hands and reconstruction of genital and urinary organs and the lower abdomen.

“When warriors come back from the battlefield with serious life-changing injuries, it is our job to find new and innovative ways to help them,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Caravalho Jr., commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and Fort Detrick. “Ultimately, we’d like to create new treatments to repair these severe injuries as if they never happened.

“The science of regenerative medicine is one of the ways we fulfill our promise to service members who put themselves in harm’s way, that we will work our hardest and do our very best to take care of them,” he said.

The AFIRM-II partners, known collectively as the Warrior Restoration Consortium, will work with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Government sponsors of AFIRM are the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Medical Service, the Office of Research and Development — Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.