Throughout history, combat has been a brutal and destructive experience that leaves visible and invisible wounds on anyone who engages in the fighting. Although modern technology has done marvels in making warfare more “humane,” war-fighters are still facing catastrophic injuries in their muscles, bones, skin, and nerves if they are wounded. For those fortunate enough to survive a combat wound, the recovery process is often a long and painful experience despite advancements in modern medicine. At times of heightened operational tempo, that long recovery process, which can take from a couple of months to years, starves frontline units from essential resources—as that’s what war-fighters are, ultimately.
To address this, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is planning to utilize and integrate the latest advances in actuators, biosensors, and artificial intelligence to improve the regeneration of damaged tissue and exponentially speed up the recovery process of a wounded warrior. More specifically, the Bioelectronics for Tissue Regeneration (BETR), one of DARPA’s newest projects, is looking for scientists who can develop a bioelectronic system that could, in real time, assess and track the development of a wound in order to allow for more effective treatment.
According to Dr. Paul Sheehan, the BETR program manager, the technology wouldn’t be limited to individual medicine, but would offer “dynamic, adaptive, and precise human therapies” that would constantly adapt to a wound, thereby helping wounded warriors recover more quickly.
“Wounds are living environments and the conditions change quickly as cells and tissues communicate and attempt to repair,” said Dr. Sheehan. “An ideal treatment would sense, process, and respond to these changes in the wound state and intervene to correct and speed recovery. For example, we anticipate interventions that modulate immune response, recruit necessary cell types to the wound, or direct how stem cells differentiate to expedite healing.”
Most current wound treatments are focused on passive rather than active treatment. For instance, medical professionals either designate a timeframe for the body to heal itself or intervene and treat around the wound to facilitate recovery. The usage of casts on broken bones or implanting new tissue around destroyed tissue are good examples of this approach.
According to Dr. Sheehan and his team, while these passive approaches are reasonably effective, they take too long. “To understand the importance of adaptive treatments that respond to the wound state, consider the case of antibiotic ointments,” said Dr. Sheehan. “People use antibiotics to treat simple cuts, and they help if the wound is infected. However, completely wiping out the natural microbiota can impair healing. Thus, without feedback, antibiotics can become counterproductive.”
The BETR project plans to change that. The project, which is scheduled to last four years, aims at creating active treatments that would circumvent the current limitations in combat medicine.