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University Investing in Medical Military Tech

6/1/2016
By Yasmin Tadjdeh
From eye transplants to innovative studies in concussions, the University of Pittsburgh is researching new medical technology that can benefit injured soldiers.

Work is being done through the university’s Center for Military Medicine Research, said the center’s executive director Ronald Poropatich, a retired Army colonel who worked as a pulmonary/critical care medicine physician.

“The whole purpose of that center, established in June of 2012, is to facilitate collaborations between the University of Pittsburgh faculty” and officials in the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, he said. “We focus on some really large research topics that play to the strengths of the university and also play to the needs of the DoD.”

Those areas include regenerative medicine, human performance, injury prevention and traumatic brain injury research, he said.

Within regenerative medicine, Pittsburgh is investing research dollars into tissue engineering, medical device development and cell therapy, he said. While the center is only a few years old, the university has been working in the field for more than 10 years, he noted.

Eye transplants are one area of study. Funded through a Defense Department grant worth about $250,000, the university has examined ways to transplant the eyes of rats, he said. Success with laboratory animals could one day usher in success with human patients.

It is still difficult for researchers to remove the eye and part of the rat’s face and transplant it into another rat, he said.

“Hooking up that optic nerve is really a tricky part because when you cut the eyeball out of a rat there are certain cells that die very, very quickly, so you have just moments to really reconnect and continue cell viability there,” he said. The center has found some success using a combination of surgical and regenerative medicine techniques.

The university is now using its research in eye transplants to compete for a five-year joint warfighter medical research program worth millions of dollars, he said. It submitted a proposal earlier this spring.

Traumatic brain injury research is another area of investment. The University of Pittsburgh is especially well known for its studies in the area of chronic traumatic encephalopathy because of its work with the NFL and Bennet Omalu, the doctor who in the early 2000s discovered that many American football players were suffering from CTE. Repeated blows to the head cause the progressive degenerative disease, which can often lead to suicide, and is typically diagnosed during autopsies.

“We have some very strong programs in basic science looking at … brain injury and cell death, taking it through neuroimaging,” Poropatich said. “That’s a big part of our research capability. We’re very strong in imaging the brain and coming up with neurodegenerative diseases before you have to do an autopsy. And once you do an autopsy … it’s too late, the person’s dead.”

Topics: Health Affairs

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