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A dentist and a physicist

Retired Army dentist-colonel force behind U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine

A dentist and a physicist
Dr. Robert Vandre

Ft. Detrick, Md.—Dr. Robert Vandre didn’t start out wanting to be a dentist, but a series of fortuitous steps led him from physics to dentistry to directing the Army’s Combat Casualty Care Research and transforming the way wounded soldiers are treated.

Back in 1972, Dr. Vandre—now a retired colonel—was working on his Ph.D. in physics at the University of California Los Angeles and balancing weekend work at the Aerospace Corp., when he became friendly with a group of dental students who were also members of his church. Because the Vietnam War was ending and jobs in physics were drying up fast, on a whim he decided to see what dental school was all about. He decided to audit some of his friend’s—future oral surgeon Dr. Dave Adams—freshman classes. He was hooked.

Because he’d previously been enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he knew he owed the Army two years after school was finished. After completing dental school, he was assigned to Ft. Knox, Ky., and subsequently to Fort Huachuca in Cochise Country, Ariz. He planned to stay in for only two years but found he loved being in the Army.

While taking a course on composites, Dr. Vandre ended up conversing with a scientist who also happened to be the Army’s director of dental research, Dr. Geno Battistone. After hearing about his background in physics, Dr. Battisone offered him a job in dental research. “At the time I’d been doing straight patient care for five years,” Dr. Vandre explained.

The new position meant working on developing the first “lightweight” hand-held dental X-ray guns that could be used easily on the battlefield. At the time most of these devices used film and required clean water and mild temperatures—both rarities out in the field. That led him to working with Ford Aerospace Corporation and subsequently Fairchild Imaging Sensors on a commercial X-ray system that was eventually purchased by DEXIS.

In 1998, Dr. Vandre went from being a researcher to managing researchers when he was made the Army’s Director of Combat Casualty Care Research. This research focused mainly on how to keep wounded soldiers alive on the battlefield.

“As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq heated up, the military was able to use many of the inventions and treatments from this research,” he said. “Those treatments, coupled with other important items such as improved body armor and better-trained medics, allowed the military to cut the battlefield death rate by almost 50 percent.”

In 2006 Dr. Vandre said he was struck with the realization that although the Army was saving more of its “combat-wounded,” many of those patients were “severely mangled by their wounds and the current technology had no good way to repair many of these injuries.”

While searching for a solution, he attended a lecture by Anthony Atala, M.D., on the recent advances in regenerative medicine. This, Dr. Vandre realized, was a new field of research that could hold great promise to developing treatments for wounded warriors. After two years of begging government officials for funding, Dr. Vandre said he was able to found the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine in 2008. AFIRM is a consortium of more than 200 scientists and 50 academic and private sector partners engaged in “bench top research and clinical trials involving hand and face transplants, regenerated muscles and nerves, and new skin for patients.”

“It’s incredible the amount of interest it’s generated and the success the program has had through the sheer force of Robert Vandre’s will,” said Col. Russell Coleman in a April 25 Washington Post article. Col. Coleman commands U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity at Fort Detrick, Md.

“When we went into war, the focus became keeping people alive but I knew we had to find a way to repair them as well,” Dr. Vandre explained. “Regenerative medicine sounds like science fiction, but it’s real.”

During all of this, he was committed to keep seeing patients every week. He said he really liked being able to help soldiers who otherwise could not have afforded treatment.

“I always made time for dentistry,” said Dr. Vandre, who before “retiring” treated about 15 patients a week. “I never lost the love for it.”

He attended the advanced education in general dentistry residency program at Ft. Bragg, N.C., in 1990 and spent two years studying oral surgery, periodontics, endodontics and orthodontics.

“That program changed my life,” he said. “I thought I knew everything about dentistry and it turned out that at least 25 percent had changed.”

Though no longer the director at AFIRM—he retired from the Army in 2010—he continues to serve the Army as a contractor and is back helping to manage Combat Casualty Care Research.

Dr. Vandre and his wife Jane are the parents of seven children and have 16 grandchildren. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he hopes in the future to participate in a mission overseas and do even more good with his dentistry.

“That would be my dream,” he said.