NATICK, Mass. (April 9, 2012) -- An injury he suffered during a high altitude-low opening parachute jump 15 years ago ended his own career as a Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance combat medic, but Wayne Matheny never stopped caring about others in uniform.
After collecting a bachelor's degree in anthropology and a doctorate in biochemistry, now Dr. Matheny is still trying to help service members as a research physiologist for the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick Soldier Systems Center.
"That's our goal," Matheny said. "We want to help these guys. From my beginnings at the 18 Delta (Special Forces Medical Sergeant) course, I've always felt a kinship toward Soldiers."
Matheny's work in the Military Performance Division at USARIEM can only be seen through a high-power laboratory microscope, yet his efforts at the molecular level could produce huge dividends one day. His goal is to develop a method of speeding the healing process in wounded Soldiers.
"In an effort to enhance return to duty," said Matheny, "my goal is to accelerate the regeneration of skeletal muscle after an injury."
Matheny said that after skeletal muscle injuries -- whether on or off the battlefield -- stem cells activate, divide, form more stem cells, fill in and heal the affected area.
"Normally, they're off," said Matheny of the stem cells. "When you get an injury, they're turned on. Yeah, this happens, but the molecular events that underlie this are not as well established. You've got a lot of top researchers around the world working on this."
Fortunately for the Army, Matheny is one of them. In a lab at USARIEM, he and technicians Cpl. Luis A. Leandry and Christine M. Lynch examine the growth of skeletal muscle stem cells, which double every 24 hours. The three are looking for ways to accelerate that growth, perhaps through drug or gene therapy.
"This is a team effort," Matheny said. "I lead a team, but they're right beside me doing the work. They are a big part of it. We could always use more funding, we could always use more personnel, but what we need is time."
Matheny squeezes every last minute out of his own day as he works toward his goal.
"I love my science," Matheny said. "I got up this morning and came to work excited, like I do every day. It's always in the back of my mind. I love it.
"Our absolute singular focus is to accelerate muscle regeneration in injured Soldiers. We even go out after hours and talk about this stuff. Everybody's invested in the research."
Matheny works in an office devoid of family pictures or other personal mementos, though he has been at USARIEM for three years.
"When I come in here, I'm strictly focused on this," said Matheny of his research. "This is what I do."
Matheny acknowledged that this quest could consume his entire career. He would rather it didn't.
"I hope to have this problem solved," said Matheny, "but a lot of other people would, too."
Toward that end, Matheny collaborates with a host of researchers beyond USARIEM, but he admitted that an answer is still over the horizon.
"Practical application for some of these basic science findings is possibly years out," Matheny said. "If a drug were to be developed, it would still have to go through the [Food and Drug Administration] approval process. What we can offer in the short term is high-quality information, relevant modeling systems, and contributions to product development.
"From a practical standpoint, how is this going to affect the Soldier? It will lead to some therapy that presumably will be used in a forward environment to accelerate muscle healing."
That day can't come soon enough for the former combat medic, who has seen what Soldiers go through while recovering from battlefield trauma at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
"It's a heartbreaker," Matheny said. "When one sees something like that, and one has the ability to do something about it, it lights a fire in the gut.
"That fire in my gut hasn't gone away since I attended the 18 Delta course in 1994. I'm after this (solution), and I'm going to get it."