VA, UF researchers teaming up to better address war wounds


Kenneth Heilman, a Veterans Affairs research scientist and neurologist with the Brain Rehabilitation Research Center, gives a lecture on neglect to researchers and VA staff members during VA Research Week in the auditorium of the Malcolm Randall VA Medical Center on Wednesday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of dealing with maggots on forgotten food or trash, it might be difficult for you to make this leap of faith: Those slimy, creepy crawlers are actually medicinal.

Before you get all grossed out, consider that maggots’ slimy texture and sucking capacity are like balm on your deepest wounds.

Veterans typically come back from wars with a lot of wounds, and wound healing is one of the topics researchers at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Florida, are working on.

In recognition of National VA Research Week, research highlights were presented Wednesday during Research Day at the Malcom Randall facility.

Professor Linda Cowan, a research scientist with the VA, said a lot of vets have chronic wounds that do not heal. This can cause diabetic ulcers -- which vets also typically get -- necessitating limb amputation.

Cowan explained that about 60 percent of chronic wounds develop a biofilm that resists treatments. But studies using maggots on pig skins have been remarkably successful at cutting through this biofilm, Cowan said.

She added that the use of maggots in wound healing actually dates back to World War I, when a wounded soldier left without food and water for seven days was found alive -- allegedly with about a thousand maggots in his wound, a fact many attributed to his survival.

“We understand there’s a yuck factor,” Cowan said, adding that researchers are working with a company in the United Kingdom that has developed a more contained way to apply maggots to wounds -- enclosed in a tea bag. “We feel this could do vets good.”

Dr. Michael Good, dean of the UF College of Medicine, lauded the collaboration between UF and the VA and said more than 100 UF faculty members also have appointments at the VA.

“The best science is not done by individuals, but by teams, and the VA is a perfect partner,” Good said.

One area of collaboration is on the subject of aphasia, a disorder affecting a people’s ability to understand and use words. For example, a person with aphasia, if given a picture of a nurse weighing a baby, might struggle to come up with the words “nurse” and “baby.”

This leads to frustration and isolation in people affected by aphasia, said Jimena Ojeda, a UF speech-language pathologist who presented at Wednesday’s Research Day.

Ojeda said a technique called verb network strengthening treatment, or VNeST, helps improve a person’s ability to retrieve nouns by giving them verbs and a thematic object, such as measure and sugar. A chef measures sugar, and chef would be the missing word someone with aphasia would have to find, Ojeda explained.

Although Ojeda and colleagues have used VNeST on only 10 people, all have shown great improvement, she said.

“They are better at communicating their emotions, have less physical pain, and their isolation has decreased,” she said, adding that people who before wouldn’t answer the phone or call the cable company if needed are now doing those things as a result of the therapy.

Another area of research discussed at Research Day was attention disorders.

“There is a huge amount of information coming into our brains, and we cannot process all of it. Attention is the means by which the brain decides which stimuli to process,” said Dr. Kenneth Heilman, a neurologist at the VA and the director of the Memory and Cognitive Disorder Clinic at UF.

Heilman said our brains generally pay attention to things that elicit emotions or are novel -- for example, a palmetto bug in your shoe, he said.

Heilman added that frontal lobe lesions can cause interruption to the frontal parietal lobe. Understanding how these networks connect can be important for people who have had strokes and suffer from other disorders, Heilman said.

“Even aging and other neurological disorders profoundly change attention.”

Heilman, who has been studying attention disorders for over 40 years, underlined the importance of supporting research.

“If you are interested in reducing suffering, there is nothing more important that we can do than research, and if you don’t do it, support it,” he said.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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