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UWF alumni turning science fiction into science fact

University of West Florida | news@uwf.edu

In what may seem like science fiction, two University of West Florida Chemistry alumni are working diligently to find ways to restore and re-grow damaged tissue. Benjamin Harrison,’98, admits that the research he and Sarah Genet,’08, are working on at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) stemmed from a UWF final exam question.

“One challenge to re-growing tissue is getting enough oxygen to the tissue,” said Harrison, who holds a doctorate in inorganic chemistry. “When the WFIRM director asked me if there was any way to generate oxygen to help injured tissue survive and thrive, I remembered years ago on Dr. Grace Chiu’s Analytical Chemistry final exam that I had to list five ways to generate oxygen. We thought one of those ways could work, we tried it, it worked and that became the basis of our project on tissue survival and regeneration.”

Since then the WFIRM was awarded a $42.5 million grant to help form the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM). AFIRM is an aggressive endeavor dedicated to repairing battlefield injuries through scientific and clinical approaches that take advantage of the body’s natural healing powers to restore or replace damaged tissue and organs.

Because of the magnitude of that challenge, Harrison needed team members with excellent multidisciplinary strengths, particularly in chemistry, to turn a seemingly science fiction idea into science fact. He knew exactly where to look to find such team members – his alma mater.

“I was happy to get someone from UWF to work on this project because of the top-notch training of the Chemistry Department,” said Harrison. “Many universities have cut funding to one of the most important training tools in chemistry to save money-actual lab experience. Fortunately, UWF still requires students to work in the lab. That training gave Sarah the edge we needed to rapidly develop these life saving technologies.”

Taking advantage of the alumni connections she’s found at UWF, Genet is grateful for the opportunity to work side-by-side and learn from a fellow UWF alumnus, working with Harrison and expanding her knowledge through the culmination of various sciences.

“Every so often when I’m doing an experiment, I take a step back and realize what I’m doing can be used to save limbs and change people’s lives,” said Genet. “The idea that this research can contribute to rebuilding new organs is truly profound and amazing.”

Working with 29 universities, AFIRM is developing clinical therapies in five areas including burn repair, scarless wound healing, craniofacial reconstruction, limb reconstruction and regeneration and compartment syndrome, a condition related to inflammation after surgery or injury that can lead to increased pressure, impaired blood flow, nerve damage and muscle death.

“Our research is dedicated to restoring lost function,” said Harrison. “Unfortunately, the demand for organ transplants far exceeds the supply. There’s a huge gap that has to be filled. We hope to fill that gap by re-growing functional tissue, so we can give people back the quality of life they deserve.”

Learn more about UWF’s Chemistry Program at uwf.edu/chemistry.

Written by Megan Tyson, University Marketing Communications

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