Under Siege

On the sixth floor of a nondescript building at the edge of the Massachusetts General Hospital campus, doctors have spent 22 years quietly developing life-saving lasers for battlefield medicine. Funding for their efforts has come from the military’s Medical Free Electron Laser program, to the tune of about $5 million annually. That sum—meager by pharmaceutical research standards—has produced eight major breakthroughs in the past decade, including the laser-based treatment of kidney stones. But earlier this year, with the Iraq war dominating Pentagon resources, the government stopped doling out the money. Now the hospital’s all-star team of M.D.s is scrambling to save its work.

The laser studies are limping along on reserve funds now; without new cash, the program could be shuttered by January. That would end some very promising research, such as laser work that repairs severed nerves by fusing torn flesh, kills bacteria that infect up to 40 percent of military wounds, and (with the device pictured) even helps medics start IVs during sandstorms.

The Mass General team isn’t giving up, pursuing other grants even as it hopes regime change in Washington will lead to more money by 2010. Still, the interruption in funding could have a lasting impact. "It’s taken two decades to get these top docs together," says Dr. Lynn Drake, a Mass General dermatologist affiliated with the program. "Now they’re going to take other jobs and disperse, and we’ll never get them back."