The military's plan to regrow body parts.

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April 18 2008 12:40 PM

Rearming America

The military's plan to regrow body parts.

The regeneration of lost body parts has just moved from science fiction to U.S. military policy.

Yesterday the Department of Defense announced the creation of the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which will go by the happy acronym AFIRM. According to DOD's news service, AFIRM will "harness stem cell research and technology … to reconstruct new skin, muscles and tendons, and even ears, noses and fingers." The government is budgeting $250 million in public and private money for the project's first five years. NIH and three universities will be on the team.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The people who brought you the Internet are about to bring you replacement fingers.

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If you've been following Human Nature for the past three years, you know that tissue regeneration  is well underway. The military has been working on regrowing lost body parts using extracellular matrices. Scientists in labs have grown blood vessels, livers, bladders, breast implants, and meat. This year they announced the production of beating, disembodied rat hearts. At yesterday's press conference, Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker explained that our bodies systematically generate liver cells and bone marrow and that this ability can be redirected through "the right kind of stimulation."

Now that the regeneration fantasy is becoming real, it's worth pausing to notice how we're absorbing it culturally. This is extremely freaky stuff. Just a few days ago, my wife and I were explaining to our 5-year-old daughter that she needs to take good care of her adult teeth because they're the last real teeth she'll ever have.

That's just not true anymore. It's not true of her fingers and toes, either. And why stop there? Schoomaker points out that salamanders can regenerate whole limbs. He asks: "Why can't a mammal do the same thing?"

When technology transforms humanity in such a fundamental way, it's best to start with a context that feels normal. Today, that context is what every American politician now calls "our brave men and women in uniform." The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, waged in large part through improvised explosive devices, have produced nearly 1,000 U.S. military amputees. Many other service members have lost eyesight or suffered burns or spinal-cord damage. We all want to help these young people recover. We've seen inspiring stories of doctors outfitting them with prosthetic limbs. If only we could make them truly whole again. And now we can.

At the press conference, Schoomaker displayed pictures of a wounded Marine whose disfigured features could be restored only through tissue regrowth. He vowed to "redefine the Army and military medicine." The Defense Department's assistant secretary for health declared a goal of "getting these people up to where they are functioning and reintegrated, employed, [and] able to help their families and be fully participating members of society."

It's a familiar and worthy goal. And it has to be, because in the larger context of human history, its job is to ease us across the mind-blowing threshold of human regeneration. If my daughter loses a tooth, she may be able to grow it back. If my son loses a finger, the work pioneered by AFIRM early in his life may be able to help him.

Warfare will never be the same again, either. American military medicine is already saving the lives of soldiers who would have died in previous conflicts. Yesterday's death is today's wound. Now we're raising the ante: Today's permanent wound will be tomorrow's bad memory. Blow off our fingers, and we'll grow them back.

Further down the road, other possibilities will emerge. If we can restore a soldier's original muscle strength, we can probably add to it. The military is already encouraging soldiers to get LASIK, which improves some people's eyesight beyond 20/20. It's hard to believe we won't continue to improve that surgery and systematize it across the armed forces. Most of us civilians will face these revolutions when we're ready. By then, like AFIRM, they'll already be here.

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