Commentary

Manufacturing a new future for our veterans

On Thanksgiving weekend, 50,000 students, faculty, and alumni filled the blue and orange rafters of Scott Stadium here in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a marquee college football matchup; a scene no different from many other large universities across the country.

Now, consider if those blue and orange rafters were filled with returning service members, at an average age of 26, with irrecoverable damage to their head, neck and extremities.

In America, 53,000 veterans have suffered significant physical injuries from explosions and gunshot wounds. Four in five of those veterans will wrestle with complex head, neck and extremity trauma for the rest of their lives.

While improvements in military gear, armor, training and medicine have drastically reduced the death rates of our service members, we have seen a troubling increase in these lifelong injuries, which account for nearly two-thirds of discharges from the military in recent conflicts — and nearly two-thirds of the dollars devoted to health care for veterans and service members.

Yet, we still have too few treatment options for these traumas, with even fewer that are demonstrably effective.

We must confront the reality that we can be far more responsive to the health-care needs of both our veterans and our service members in the line of duty. Fortunately, we have a path forward in the form of advanced biomanufacturing.

For context, we are on the frontier of developing regenerative medicine therapeutics and tissue-engineering implants for our wounded warriors as they recover from devastating traumatic injuries. Such breakthroughs can drastically improve their quality of life, now and for decades to come.

As a testament to the growing promise of these efforts, the White House convened a summit last month on America’s bio-economy — and the federal government has spearheaded a flurry of initiatives that include the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, 21st Century Cures Act and the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute.

However, the groundbreaking innovations at the heart of the bio-economy require long-term, sustained funding support.

Our hope is to generate the resources, infrastructure, funding and research support — at all levels of the government, academic, not-for-profit and industry sectors — that are required to scale these novel technologies and make them available to more of our wounded warriors. Such a shift would also increase the reach and range of these treatments for civilians who may also suffer from a similar level of physical trauma.

The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) and initiatives such as the Multi-Agency Tissue Engineering Science (MATES) Interagency Working Group have laid the groundwork for agencies like the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, National Institutes of Health, and National Science Foundation to realize this vision. Together, they have engaged in, conceptualized, and coordinated their efforts to invest nearly $3 billion in the promise of complex, multidisciplinary projects and solutions that may make it possible to one day regenerate limbs and grow new organs in place of injured body parts.

Yet, there is so much more that we can do to bring these transformative treatments to market. Our wounded warriors have given everything they have for our country, without any regret or thought as to the sacrifice made on our behalf.

Is it wrong for them to expect the same of us?

One way in which we can recognize their sacrifices is to further galvanize the biomanufacturing sector. And we can begin to do that by meaningfully engaging thought leaders from across our research institutions, government agencies, businesses and hospitals to explore how to solve this grand challenge, leveraging the diverse perspectives needed to research, develop, fund and ultimately commercialize these technologies.

Here at the University of Virginia School of Engineering, we are leading by example, cultivating a foundational ecosystem of partners through both regional symposia and international meetings (the latest of which just occurred in October) that surface promising research and funding opportunities in biomanufacturing.

In support of the military, we can then share the expertise of these collaborative networks to further spark groundbreaking initiatives like the VA’s integrated, 3D printing network, which is up and running in 20 hospitals across the country. And we can also build on the U.S. Military and Uniformed Service University’s efforts to bring advanced bio-fabrication and 3D printing of medical products to the battlefield, which is already reality. Perhaps, someday, 3D bioprinting will be too.

But first, we need to raise widespread awareness that the field of biomanufacturing is real — and capable of delivering on its virtually unlimited potential. That is where this cross-sector group of leaders comes in, highlighting concrete projects, showcasing promising investments, and describing the transformational impact that innovations like these can have on our veterans, current service members, and their beneficiaries. And we can create educational and workforce development programs as well as hands-on research opportunities for high school students, undergraduate students and countless other individuals that not only offer connections to leaders in the field — but also inspire them to become the first wave of tissue engineers, cell biologists and bio-manufacturers.

Establishing long-term, transformative medical solutions for our veterans will require a sustained, local, national, public and private offensive. And it will require us to accept that even if we can’t produce new tissues and organs for those 53,000 wounded warriors in the bleachers for another 20 to 30 years, those technologies can still have an immeasurable impact on their lives — as well as those of countless service members and civilians.

To realize success in such a complex, multi-faceted mission, we must leverage the truly multi-disciplinary teams at our universities that can offer expertise in fields as varied as education, art and design, biological sciences, engineering, computer science, data science, medicine, nursing, rehabilitation, ethics, law and commerce.

Let’s truly repay our veterans for their sacrifices — and jumpstart an effort that can change their lives.

George Christ is a professor of biomedical engineering and orthopedic surgery at the University of Virginia schools of Engineering and Medicine and also directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Biomanufacturing, one of the nation’s only dedicated institutes for advanced biomanufacturing.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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