Famed US military mad-professor bureau DARPA has inked a second deal with Massachusetts researchers to develop ways of "regenerating" human body tissues cut, shot or blown off in combat. The new biotech therapies would employ the same methods used by newts in growing replacement limbs.
News of the award comes courtesy of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), which announced the $570,000 agreement between DARPA and WPI-spawned company CellThera yesterday. CellThera is expected to work with the university's bioengineering department in delivering Phase II of DARPA's "restorative injury repair" programme.
DARPA seems to be looking for full-on, science-fiction level regen therapies here. According to the military wild-science boffins:
The vision is to fully restore the function of complex tissue (muscle, nerves, skin, etc) after traumatic injury on the battlefield... with true “wound healing” by regeneration of fully differentiated, functional tissue.
The program will achieve its goals by... processes of morphogenesis leading to anatomic and functional restoration [which] will culminate in the restoration of a functional multi-tissue structure in a mammal.
Under Phase I, CellThera and WPI bioengineers "succeeded in reprogramming mouse and human skin cells to act more like stem cells, able to form the early structures needed to begin the process of re-growing lost tissues" - a process described by DARPA as "generating a blastema in an otherwise non-regenerating animal".
A blastema is the boffinry term for the clump of special progenitor cells which appears at injury sites in creatures naturally able to regenerate themselves, such as newts or salamanders. Another name, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is "regeneration bud". When you cut off a salamander's leg, for instance, a blastema appears at the stump and then grows into a new leg with muscles, nerves etc all complete.
It seems then that the Massachusetts boffins have already produced basic regen buds, potentially capable of growing into new working body parts - at least for mice.
"We are very pleased to be moving into the next phase of this work," said Raymond Page, WPI biotech prof.
We might all wish the prof luck and look forward to the day when limbs, buttocks etc cruelly snatched away before their time by the violence of the enemy, drunk drivers or horrific household accidents can simply be regrown. Or indeed to the day when we might, like Zaphod Beeblebrox, choose to sprout an extra arm - perhaps for critical multitasking applications involving drinks or complicated game peripherals.
The only people genuinely likely to be upset by this prospect would seem to be the rival DARPA-funded boffins engaged in developing the rocketfuelled, steam-powered cybernetic arm. The spraycan wound-spackle guys might still be OK, as presumably severed limbs etc would still need to be stabilised while regrowth took place. ®