Dr. Joachim Kohn has never seen combat. He has never retaliated enemy fire, deployed with a platoon to some foreign, war-ravaged nation, or ridden shotgun in a tank. But from his first years of childhood to his military-funded, revolutionary scientific innovations, Kohn’s life has been indelibly marked by armed conflict.
“One of my earliest memories is at three years of age, making a playground out of bombed-out buildings,” Kohn, now a spry 60 years old, recalls. “Houses, offices, these shells of buildings that were simply everywhere.”
In fact, Kohn’s playground was the urban carcass of Munich, Germany, where he was born to Jewish parents shortly after the end of World War II. Having lost much of his extended family, including grandparents and seven aunts and uncles, during the Holocaust, Kohn grew up with an intimate understanding of war’s human toll.
And the understanding seems to have stuck: More than five decades later, Kohn, a chemist, is at the helm of a $250 million, Pentagon-funded exploit into regenerative medicine called AFIRM. His goal: to take those people ravaged by war, and help put them — quite literally — back together.
Kohn himself pioneered a new class of degradable compounds that are now used inside the body to provide controlled drug delivery, as well as for tissue engineering and regenerative processes like bone and nerve repair. And during his leadership of the AFIRM program, scientists under Kohn’s guidance have already completed an array of futuristic therapies to heal wounded soldiers: Among them are the country’s first-ever face transplant; lab-grown ears nearly ready for human transplantation; and an engineered skin substitute that will soon be tested on soldiers with extensive burns.