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Pitt program gets $12 million to rebuild bones, muscle

A $12 million contract with the Department of Defense will put on the fast track three ambitious projects to repair and rebuild injured body parts, officials with the University of Pittsburgh and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine said Tuesday.

The projects, which should be completed within two years, will help advance treatments for damaged bones, severe scarring and lost muscle. They're aimed at helping soldiers returning with major injuries, an area of focus at the McGowan Institute. The treatments also could help people with birth defects or trauma victims.

"All these projects could deliver much-needed solutions for the ills that plague our wounded soldiers," said Alan Russell, the institute's director.

During a demonstration at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, Dr. Bernard J. Costello provided a glimpse into one of the projects: using an injectable calcium phosphate cement that can be shaped to fill in defects — and can turn into bone.

Costello, a primary investigator at Pitt's School of Dental Medicine, said the cement that looks like toothpaste serves as a carrier of proteins, cells and DNA that help it turn into bone within days. The goal is to use it to fill defects in the skull, eye sockets and cheekbones.

"This is truly regenerative instead of replacement material," Costello said, noting that doctors traditionally cut pieces of bone from the legs or ribs to repair skull injuries. Researchers have been developing the cement for about seven years and performing laboratory tests but have not tested it in humans.

"This contract gives us a quicker route to clinical trials," he said. He expects to enroll about 20 people in a trial that could begin next year, to test the material's safety in humans.

Another project involves the use of a naturally made scaffold for cells to replace muscle tissue. Dr. Stephen Badylak, the institute's deputy director, said the material approved by the Food and Drug Administration could be used to regenerate muscle in the thighs, calves and upper arms.

Isaias Hernandez, a Connecticut Marine injured in Iraq in 2004, received a similar treatment in clinical trials at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Yesterday in Pittsburgh, he showed his right thigh, which was treated with the scaffold material.

"I couldn't walk up stairs. Now I can walk," said Hernandez, 24, who received a standing ovation from a crowd of about 200 people. "I can even bike. It made my life much easier."

The third project will examine injections of human fibroblasts -- a type of connective tissue cell -- into scars and wounds that contract and tighten the skin. Such injuries limit movement and cause pain, researchers said.

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