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Synthetic skin mask for wounded warriors

By Emily Baucum, News 4 Reporter
Facebook: Emily Baucum TV
Twitter: @EmilyBaucum

SAN ANTONIO -- Imagine this: a mask made of real skin that doctors can surgically implant onto your face.

It sounds like science fiction, but it's closer than ever to reality for our wounded warriors.

Forty percent of injured service members are coming home with facial wounds. Some are so scarred, so disfigured, that doctors here in San Antonio are working day and night to make their lives better.

Military doctors say the way they treat facial burns hasn't changed in decades. Dozens of surgeries. A lifetime of scars.

Doctors say we owe our troops more than patchwork faces. They're calling the answer a Biomask.

Retired Staff Sergeant Jason March's journey took him from the battlefield to the operating room.

"All I remember is, there was a thud. I was shot in the back of the head," he says. "Close to 80 surgeries."

As a souvenir, March now has a mold of his skull that shows the toll the injury took.

"This side shows you the whole cheekbone destroyed," March says. "The entire right side of my face has been reconstructed."

The faces of wounded troops tell a story of sacrifice. Other scars, you don't see in the mirror. They'll struggle to chew, swallow and talk the rest of their lives.

"These soldiers who stood up in uniform and go overseas, they have a lot of spine," Col. Robert Hale says. "They're tough people."

He works with the most severely injured troops at the San Antonio Military Medical Center.

Col. Hale is one of about 50 experts working on a groundbreaking idea that could minimize pain and scarring. Instead of grafting skin on like a quilt, mold it into a "Biomask."

"Make it into a face so surgeons can, after removing the burned skin and scars, place it over the face," Col. Hale says. "It gives the contours of the skin [a] more normal [appearance]."

To engineer the Biomask, the military is working with scientists at the Southwest Research Institute. It would require a synthetic skin made partially of collagen from fetal cow tissue.

"We will combine with the stem cell from the patient's own stem cell to promote wound healing," Dr. Jian Ling from the Institute says.

The Biomask won't be ready for five to ten years. But March says he's the face of what smart minds have already accomplished.

"I was never able to smile," March remembers from the initial recovery period. "When I smiled, that side went down," he says while pointing to the right side of his lips.

March pauses and slowly forms a smile.

"The doctors gave me the will to stand in pictures and smile," he says.

If the military gets the Biomask right, it could later help civilians recover after house fires or car accidents.

By the way, March says people ask him every day how they can help our troops. He works with organizations like Texas Honor Ride and Warrior and Family Support Center to help veterans from all over the country who are recovering in San Antonio.

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