Rethinking Healthcare

U.S. military develops implantable muscles

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Armed Forces-funded scientists transplant muscle cells "excercised" in the lab onto the backs of mice.

This blog has previously covered the U.S. Armed Forces' efforts to advance medical technology to keep up with the needs of wounded vets - from mobile apps to address PTSD symptoms to innovations in prosthetics - but a new technology has caught my attention more than any prior: implantable muscle.

No, we're not talking supplemental biceps to build U.S. military Terminators. At least not yet. This lab-grown muscle is being assessed to treat severe head and facial injuries.

Military-aided researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center report in the latest issue of Tissue Engineering Part A that muscles grown in their lab have significantly improved function in the backs of injured mice.

Here's how they did it:

  1. They harvest mouse muscle cells and duplicate them on strips of pig bladder (engineered to be mouse-compatible).
  2. A computer-guided device expands and contracts the cells, "exercising" them.
  3. The researchers implant the strips of muscle cells into mice who'd had half of their back muscle removed (yes, ouch).

The mice implanted with "exercised" muscle strips showed a three times improvement in strength over the mice whose injured muscles were left unaddressed. The implanted cells appeared to speed up healing and prompt the development of new muscle tissue.

Before moving on to treat head and facial injuries, the Wake Forest team hopes to first test the method in humans with cleft lip and palate. Apparently the patch of muscle currently under trial is a perfect match for the section typically missing in people with those birth defects.

This research is sponsored by the Armed Forces' Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. Other tissue-engineering projects by the center include bone, skin and nerve regeneration. Wake Forest says in a statement that those other projects may one day be combined with the engineered muscle to create complete composite tissue. Body chunk implants anyone?

Image: CircaSassy/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure