The U.S. military has a checkered past when it comes to doing experiments on its soldiers, so any announcement about new advances in “reprogramming cells” in soldiers to promote the faster healing of wounds should rightfully be met with caution … especially when the headlines refer to turning soldiers into “Wolverine” – the X-Men character with a mutant healing factor that regenerates damaged or destroyed tissues. Well, that’s what the U.S. Air Force is seriously researching -- technology that could heal wounds more than five times faster than the human body can heal naturally. Does it involve adamantium?
“There are amazing opportunities in the United States, that you don't see in the rest of the world, to humanize science and meet critical needs in medicine. We have the resources to do this, and it is our obligation to take full advantage of them. Thanks to the Air Force’s help, I was able to acquire the tools I need to advance my research into cellular reprogramming and wound healing.”
By ‘resources’, Dr. Indika Rajapakse, associate professor of Computational Medicine & Bioinformatics and associate professor of Mathematics at the University of Michigan, means money from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and by ‘tools’, he means a live cell imaging microscope that will allow him to reprogram human cells to become different types of cells. Rajapakse proposed this to the Air Force as a way to help wounded aircrew members heal ultra-quickly before hypoxia and other altitude related injuries set in.
“Indika’s research is exactly the kind of breakthrough technology we’re looking for in Air Force Disruptive Technology. This shows the real promise of our efforts to bring warfighters and technologists together to imagine the possibilities of early scientific research.”
According to the press release, Col. Charles Bris-Bois of the Air Force Disruptive Technology Team, brought together the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the AFRL's 711th Human Performance Wing, and Air Force Futures and connected them with Dr. Rajapakse as a way to open both sides to using Rajapakse’s medical mathematical research with real-world Air Force medical needs. Rajapakse showed how cellular reprogramming could change the genome of a skin cell into a muscle cell, blood cell, or any other type of human cell. This same technique would make wounds heal more than five times faster, by applying they new cells like a spray-on bandage. Rajapakse and his team had the algorithm to do all of this, but they needed the live cell imaging microscope to make it happen.
“It usually takes decades for basic math research to make it into models which can be applied to a technology. In Dr. Rajapakse’s case, it only took a handful of years. AFRL is proud that our funding enabled mathematical theory for modeling and valuable data to be gathered which contributed to this rapid development.”
Dr. Frederick Leve, program officer for AFOSR’s Dynamical Systems and Control Theory portfolio, got the money and the machine for Rajapakse. The press release is an indication that the research is well on its way to becoming reality. Will it indeed make soldiers into Wolverines? Would they want to?
“There's not many people that'll understand what you're going through. But I think this guy, Xavier, is one of them. He seems to genuinely want to help you. And that's a rare thing, for people like us. So... what do you say, we give these geeks one more shot?” (Wolverine in X-Men)
That, of course, is Wolverine convincing Rogue to go back to Xavier’s school for mutants. Dr. Rajapakse doesn’t say if he’s tried reprogramming his own cells to heal faster, and there’s no indication that the reprogramming would turn soldiers into mutants. Of course, the military has ‘misled’ soldiers before, and while Rajapakse says the U.S. is leading the world in this, it’s probably not. And, when the military finds out that China or Russia or Iran or some other country is ahead of us in doing something like this, questionable decisions can be made.
"Do I look like a man who exaggerates?" (Logan/Wolverine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
Are we ready for Wolverines?