A surgery long popular for cosmetic purposes may also help soldiers when they come off the battlefield.

Adam Katz, a plastic surgeon and researcher in the UVA Health System, is conducting research for the newly formed Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine to see if fat grafting can improve the healing of wounds and severe burns of soldiers injured during combat. “Traditionally, fat grafting has been used to fill wrinkles or augment lips and other similar structures,” Katz says. “More recently, a growing number of physicians have noticed that fat grafting seems to have beneficial effects on surrounding tissue. Even more, recent published literature suggests that injecting fat around a wound helps it to heal better.”

In one planned study, burn patients who received skin grafts would receive a fat transplant in which their own fat tissue is harvested, cleaned and reinjected beneath the skin-grafted area. Katz believes the fat grafts may reduce scar formation and mitigate scar tightness, which can limit a limb’s range of motion. His research will also explore the ability of stem cells extracted from fat tissue to engineer new skin or soft tissue to replace damaged dermis and subcutaneous layers of the skin. Katz believes that when soldiers receive materials made from their own cells, they won’t reject the implanted skin or tissue.

“I have read statistics about amputations and have seen the disfiguring scars that our soldiers carry,” says Katz. “It’s clear that they are surviving more than they did in previous conflicts because of technology and state-of-the-art emergency medical care, but they are experiencing significant morbidities and functional deficits in terms of damaged and/or lost limbs and disfiguring facial trauma that results from explosive devices.”