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How Lab-Grown Testicles Could Help Wounded Soldiers Have Children

Genitourinary injuries rose dramatically in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

A Marine returns home from Afghanistan in 2012. Image via Flickr user DVIDSHUB

Scientists at North Carolina’s Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are working to create lab-grown testicles that could one day help injured soldiers have children. Testicular injuries have grown dramatically in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; 1,300 male soldiers experienced serious genitourinary injuries while serving between 2001 and 2013, and an additional 500 sustained injuries that otherwise affected their fertility.

Motherboard’s Joseph Jaafari reports that Wake Forest researchers can now use just a few millimeters of soldiers’ damaged cells to construct new testicles. These reconstructions, however, are nearly microscopic, though they are able to produce sperm.

“The future plans are to grow the testicular tissue, expand the cells and put it back into the patient,” Dr. Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest center, told Jaafari. “But for a whole testicle, there is a very rich blood-vessel supply and that’s the challenge. We can make them small, but we’re working hard to make them larger.”

Experts say the uptick in these injuries are mostly the result of the growth in foot patrols in war zones.

Despite repeated attempts by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to pass legislation addressing it, the Army still does not cover in vitro fertilization (IVF) for soldiers whose reproductive organs have been injured in battle. One round of IVF treatment can cost more than $20,000.

“We want to make sure that when we in Congress make the decision to send people in harm's way, we are holding up our end of the bargain, ensuring that troops have access to care and the treatments that they really are entitled to,” Benjamin Merkel, a legislative aide to Murray, told Military Times in 2014.

The military has invested funding totaling $300 million in institutions that research facial and limb transplants and fertility.

Earlier this year, a surgical team from Johns Hopkins University received the military’s blessing to attempt a penis transplant on an anonymous soldier who sustained a bomb blast injury in Afghanistan.

“Some [patients] hope to father children,” Dr. W. P. Andrew Lee, the chairman of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins, told The New York Times. “I think that is a realistic goal.”

(Cover image via Flickr user U.S. Army Materiel Command)

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