The U.S. military is hoping that a new kind of injectable foam could stabilize soldiers wounded on the battlefield until they can be taken to a field hospital. If successful, the technology could make its way into civilian use as well, continuing a long tradition of combat medicine innovations being appropriated for the common good.
On Monday, Massachusetts-based Arsenal Medical Inc. announced that it had received a new $15.5 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, bringing the project's total funding from DARPA up to $22.5 million.
The foam is designed to be injected by a medic into the injured patient through the navel. Inside the abdominal cavity, the foam expands, molds around internal organs and compresses internal injuries that can't be seen.
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“Currently, there are no effective pre-hospital treatments available for intra-abdominal bleeding on the battlefield,” Massachusetts General Hospital surgeon David King said in a statement Monday. “Our ultimate goal is to find innovative ways to improve treatment and save lives of those who are serving their country, as well as those who experience serious injury through trauma.”
Initial tests of the foam's performance in pigs, presented by King and colleagues at the 2012 meeting of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, are promising. In the experiments, pigs were wounded internally, simulating a liver injury, and injected either with Arsenal's foam or standard battlefield fluid resuscitation. After three hours, only 8 percent of the pigs on standard fluids survived; for those injected with foam, the figure was 72 percent.
Further clinical testing will need to be done to establish the foam's safety and efficacy. If successful, Arsenal hopes to continue developing the foam for civilian use. Emergency medical technicians could stabilize internally hemorrhaging trauma victims at the scene of an accident before speeding them to the hospital.
One of the main challenges in designing a foam for internal use was to find a material that was not attracted to water. This design challenge was a big factor in the failure of other attempts at creating a foam like Arsenal's, according to the company's material science director, Upma Sharma.
“The problem is with these injuries, you’re going in blind, with a large pool of blood acting like a moat,” Sharma told Bloomberg News. “Most materials never get to the site of the bleeding.”
Arsenal's foam, if it succeeds, would only be the latest piece of medical technology nurtured in the cradle of war. The first mass production of penicillin in the U.S. was undertaken in the 1940s, so the Allied soldiers could have the antibiotic on hand during the invasion of Normandy on D-day. Airlifting patients from the scene of injury by helicopter started in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and is now used across the country to speed injury patients from remote areas to central hospitals.
Military-funded advancements in prosthetics for soldier amputees are migrating into civilian use as well, with artificial limbs designed to mimic real ones almost exactly, or in some cases built for speed, as in the "cheetah limbs" worn by Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius.