The military is looking for ways to slow down 'biological time' in order to save wounded soldiers

  • The military, concerned about conflict with a more capable foe, is looking to ensure the "golden hour" for wounded troops.
  • DARPA's latest initiative, a program looking for ways to slow down the body's biological processes, is part of efforts to extend that period.
  • The program is still very young, but the military has spearheaded other medical advances in the past.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking at ways to change how the human body manages time in order to improve wounded soldiers' chances of survival and recovery.

DARPA has set up the Biostasis program to use molecular biology as a way to evaluate and possibly alter the speed at which living systems operate with the goal of extending the window of time between a damaging event and the collapse of those systems.

Such an extension would expand the "golden hour" — the period of time between injury or infection and the first treatment that is regarded as one of the most important factors in saving a life on the battlefield.

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Inside the world of US military medics
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 29: U.S. Army flight medic SGT Tyrone Jordan (C) of Charlotte, North Carolina and crew chief SGT Charles Winscott of Columbia, Missouri (L) from Dustoff Task Force Shadow of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade gives first aid to a prisoner after he was shot by Marines during a morning firefight while Marine LCpl. Kristopher Brown of Fayetteville, North Carolina provides security aboard a MEDEVAC helicopter September 29, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. Task Force Shadow is responsible for evacuating wounded Afghani and Coalition forces as well as local nationals throughout southern Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 19: Afghan soldiers (L) speak to a local Afghan, while a medic in the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company (R) monitors a soldier who has just survived a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) while driving a vehicle during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay, on March 19, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan. The soldier suffered a concussion and a sore arm from the blast. The United States military and its allies are in the midst of training and transitioning power to the Afghan National Security Forces in order to withdraw from the country by 2014. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. Army flight medic SGT Tyrone Jordan of Charlotte, NC attached to Dustoff Task Force Shadow of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade surveys the area for a wounded Marine after jumping out of a MEDEVAC helicopter September 24, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. Two Marines were wounded at the location by an improvised explosive device (IED). Task Force Shadow is responsible for evacuating wounded Afghani and Coalition forces as well as local nationals throughout southern Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
US flight medic sergeant Megan Ford from US Army's Task Force Lift 'Dust Off', Charlie Company 1-171 Aviation regiment runs to the medevac helicopter to fly on a mission to airlift a severely wounded elderly Afghan man who was shot in the face in Helmand province on November 6, 2011. The United Nations says the number of civilians killed in the Afghanistan war in the first half of this year rose 15 percent to 1,462, with insurgents behind 80 percent. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
US military medics treat a mock victim in a tent during a joint medical evacuatioin exercise as part of the annual massive military exercises, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, at a South Korean Army hospital in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, on March 15, 2017. South Korea and the United States kicked off their annual, massive military exercises on March 1 as North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un ordered his troops to prepare for a 'merciless strike' against the enemy forces. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 19: A medic in the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company (R) tends to a soldier who has just survived a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) while driving a vehicle during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay, on March 19, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan. The soldier suffered a concussion from the blast. The United States military and its allies are in the midst of training and transitioning power to the Afghan National Security Forces in order to withdraw from the country by 2014. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BAGHRAM AIR FIELD, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. Army medics load an injured American soldier onto an Air Force jet for evacuation to Landstuhl, Germany on September 10, 2005 from Baghram Air Field, Afghanistan. American casualties in Afghanistan are first treated in the field, then usually moved to the combat hospital in Baghram for further treatment before then being evacuated on flights to Germany and then the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA: A US medic (L) waits to board a US Seahawk helicopter as other soldiers to load relief goods into the helicopter en route for a relief mission in the remote areas of the Aceh province at the military airport in Banda Aceh, 14 January 2005. The United Nations urged Indonesia not to impose a deadline on foreign troops providing relief assistance in tsunami-hit Aceh province, while the US President George W. Bush predicted that US aid would help defeat Islamic extremists. The armed forces of Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States all rushed units to Aceh in the wake of the December 26 tsunami disaster which killed more than 110,000 Indonesians out of a total of over 163,000 deaths around Asia. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
402462 10: United States and Canadian Army medics render first aid to an American soldier, who fainted due to altitude sickness, during search and destroy operations against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters March 15, 2002 in the rugged Shah-e-Kot mountains, 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of Gardez, Afghanistan. Hundreds of American and Canadian troops were lifted into the mountainous region at high altitude to search for and destroy any enemy they encounter. (Pool Photo/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 30: Members of the medical staff at the 31st Combat Support Hospital (CSH) remove Nawa District Governor Abdul Manaf from a MEDEVAC helicopter after he was airlifted to the hospital suffering from chest pains September 30, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The 31st CSH is responsible for treating wounded Afghani and Coalition forces as well as local nationals in Helmand Province. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 29: U.S. Army flight medic SGT Tyrone Jordan (R) of Charlotte, NC of Dustoff Task Force Shadow of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade helps Marines carry a wounded Afghani man to a MEDEVAC helicopter September 29, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The man had been shot by the Marines during a morning firefight. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 29: U.S. Army flight medic SGT Tyrone Jordan (C) of Charlotte, North Carolina, from Dustoff Task Force Shadow from the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade gives first aid to a prisoner after he was shot by Marines during a morning firefight as Marine LCpl. Kristopher Brown of Fayetteville, North Carolina guards him aboard a MEDEVAC helicopter September 29, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. Task Force Shadow is responsible for evacuating wounded Afghani and Coalition forces as well as local nationals throughout southern Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 24: A U.S. Marine comforts a fellow soldier before he lifts off in a MEDEVAC helicopter September 24, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The Marine was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 23: MEDEVAC helicopter crew chief Thomas Burns (L) of Orange City, FL listens for instructions from flight medic SGT Adam Montavon of Sterling, IL as they try to save the life of a severely wounded Marine aboard a MEDEVAC helicopter September 23, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The Marine later died of his injuries. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 23: U.S. Marines help flight medic SGT Adam Montavon (C) of Sterling, IL carry an injured Afghani man to a MEDEVAC helicopter September 23, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The man came to the Marine base seeking help after he was injured in a motorcycle accident. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 20: A 12-year-old Afghani girl is carried to a MEDEVAC helicopter September 20, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The girl had been grazed in the face by a bullet. Task Force Shadow is responsible for evacuating wounded Afghani and Coalition forces as well as local nationals throughout southern Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 21: Medical staff from the U.S. Army's 31st Combat Support Hospital unload an enemy prisoner of war from a MEDEVAC helicopter after he was shot in the leg September 21, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The 31st Combat Support Hospital provides level three trauma care at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 18: U.S. Marine LCpl. Joshua Bailes (L) of Mogadore, OH with 2nd BN 4th Marines and U.S. Army medic SGT Tyrone Jordan of Charlotte, NC attached to Dustoff Task Force Shadow of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade climb into a MEDEVAC helicopter after loading a wounded enemy prisoner of war September 18, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The POW had been shot in both of his legs. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 17: British solders load a wounded Afghanistan National Police (ANP) officer onto a MEDEVAC helicopter September 17, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The policeman was wounded along with two other police officers in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN - NOVEMBER 22: Members of the medical team from the 452nd Combat Support Hospital work on a wounded American soldier in the trauma unit at Sunday Olawande Memorial Hospital on forward operating base Salerno November 22, 2009 in Khost, Afghanistan. The soldier was one of two brought in by helicopter with shrapnel injuries from indirect fire. The 452nd is made up mostly of reservists from Minnesota and Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN - NOVEMBER 22: Members of the medical team from the 452nd Combat Support Hospital prepare to do a CT scan on a wounded American soldier in the trauma unit at Sunday Olawande Memorial Hospital on forward operating base Salerno November 22, 2009 in Khost, Afghanistan. The soldier was one of two brought in by helicopter with shrapnel injuries from indirect fire. The 452nd is made up mostly of reservists from Minnesota and Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
KHOST, AFGHANISTAN - NOVEMBER 22: Members of the medical team from the 452nd Combat Support Hospital offload a wounded American soldier from a helicopter outside Sunday Olawande Memorial Hospital on forward operating base Salerno November 22, 2009 in Khost, Afghanistan. The soldier was one of two brought in with shrapnel injuries from indirect fire. The 452nd is made up mostly of reservists from Minnesota and Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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"At the molecular level, life is a set of continuous biochemical reactions, and a defining characteristic of these reactions is that they need a catalyst to occur at all," Tristan McClure-Begley, the Biostasis program manager, said in a DARPA release.

"Within a cell, these catalysts come in the form of proteins and large molecular machines that transform chemical and kinetic energy into biological processes," he added.

"Our goal with Biostasis is to control those molecular machines and get them to all slow their roll at about the same rate so that we can slow down the entire system gracefully and avoid adverse consequences when the intervention is reversed or wears off," McClure-Begley said.

The Defense Department policy that ensures wounded troops are moved off the battlefield for care within the first hour after injury has been credited with the military's nearly 98% survival rate, Rear Adm. Colin G. Chinn, Joint Staff surgeon, said in mid-February.

(DARPA)

But the Pentagon's shifting focus to near-peer adversaries — ones with considerable firepower and air capabilities — have raised questions about whether the golden hour can endure in future conflicts.

The Army is looking at additional training for medics to allow them to provide care beyond the initial triage stage, bridging the gap between a combat medic's basic knowledge and that of a professional stationed at a battlefield aid station.

DARPA's initiative, still nascent, is looking for biochemical approaches that control how cells use energy at the level of proteins, using examples from nature of organisms that can survive in extreme conditions and drastically reducing or shutting down their metabolic processes. 

"If we can figure out the best ways to bolster other biological systems and make them less likely to enter a runaway downward spiral after being damaged, then we will have made a significant addition to the biology toolbox," McClure-Begley said.

Right now, the Biostasis program is focused on developing and testing proof-of-concept technologies. Similar Biostasis technologies could yield other medical benefits by reducing reaction times and extending the shelf life of blood and other biological products.

The US military is looking at other ways to boost the body's ability to respond to and recovery from injury.

Earlier this year, doctors and researchers at the Military Health System Research Symposium discussed regenerative medicine and its uses — in particular the possibility of regenerating limbs, muscles, and nerve tissue.

"We're not quite there yet," said Army Lt. Col. David Saunders, extremity repair product manager for the US Army Medical Materiel Development Activity. "What we're trying to do is develop a toolkit for our trauma and reconstructive surgeons out of various regenerative medicine products as they emerge to improve long-term outcomes in function and form of injured extremities."

Saunders added that there had been progress in using synthetic grafts to spark the regrowth of muscle, nerve, vascular, and connective tissues.

The research discussed at the symposium included efforts to use fillers to help damaged bones recover and the examination of the African spiny mouse, which has the ability to shed skin to escape predators and recover scar-free relatively quickly.

"Extremity wounds are increasingly survivable due to the implementation of body armor and damage-control surgeries," Saunders said. "[There are] many wonderful things emerging in the field of regenerative medicine to restore form and function to our wounded warfighters."

The technologies in question are far from practical application. But the military, working under wartime imperatives, has made rapid medical advances in the past. In the run-up to World War II, an Army commission secured FDA approval for a flu vaccine — the first one in the US — in just two years.

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