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At UML, an investment in hope

By From the Lowell Sun




LOWELL -- Marine Cpl. Matthew Boisvert doesn't hold out much hope that the leg he lost when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Iraq will grow back.

But Susan Braunhut, a biology professor at UMass Lowell, plans on changing his mind.

Braunhut is part of team at UMass Lowell and the University of Pittsburgh studying tissue regeneration, which they hope will eventually benefit soldiers who lost limbs.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense, awarded the group $3.7 million yesterday to continue its work.

Advances in technology have helped many soldiers survive large blasts, but that means a lot of them are returning from Iraq with major tissue loss, according to agency officials. Those soldiers return to a diminished quality of life, and doctors are having a difficult time treating them.

"Many soldiers that would have died in the Vietnam War have survived in this war, but unfortunately many of them have come home without arms and legs," said U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan. "This work is going to be extremely helpful in regenerative medicine."

Boisvert, 22, was on his second tour of duty in Fallujah in August 2004 when the Humvee he was driving struck a bomb. The explosion shot up through the vehicle, injuring his leg and causing severe nerve damage to his right arm.

Today, the Tyngsboro man uses a prothesis for his lost leg, but he still can't use his right hand. Boisvert looked into regeneration and even talked to scientists at MIT and Brown University, but he doubts whether science will advance fast enough to help him.

Braunhut and her team hope to study the regenerative abilities of salamanders, which can regrow arms and legs, and look for similar qualities in human cells. She believes even fully healed amputations will be able to regrow if her work is successful.

The grant stems from an invention created by Braunhunt and biology professor Kenneth Marx called the "Smart Bandage." The bandage uses growth factors produced by human cells to speed up the time it takes a cut to heal.

The dressing not only cut healing time in half, but managed to regrow nerves, muscle and hair where a scar would normally be.

Braunhut's short-term goal is to regenerate a mouse's toe, and maybe even a leg, in the next two years. That might be starting small, but she believes the technology could eventually be applied to humans.

"We have made such advances in matrixes and stem cells. Why can't we put those together to accomplish this goal? It is a unique time, given the innovations of science, to attempt this limb regeneration in mammals," Braunhut said.

Meehan helped draw the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's attention to the work being done at UMass Lowell.

"This funding will allow researchers to bring together a wealth of knowledge that could lead to major breakthroughs in this emerging field of study," Meehan said.

Braunhut and agency officials hope the regrowth of healthy, new tissue can be expanded to help not only wounded soldiers, but diabetic patients and the elderly.