DARPA wants smart bandages for wounded warriors

Nowhere is prompt and effective medical treatment more important than on the battlefield, where injuries are severe and conditions dangerous. DARPA thinks that outcomes can be improved by the use of intelligent bandages and other systems that predict and automatically react to the patient’s needs.

Ordinary cuts and scrapes just need a bit of shelter and time and your amazing immune system takes care of things. But soldiers not only receive far graver wounds, but under complex conditions that are not just a barrier to healing but unpredictably so.

DARPA’s Bioelectronics for Tissue Regeneration program, or BETR, will help fund new treatments and devices that “closely track the progress of the wound and then stimulate healing processes in real time to optimize tissue repair and regeneration.”

“Wounds are living environments and the conditions change quickly as cells and tissues communicate and attempt to repair,” said Paul Sheehan, BETR program manager, in a DARPA news release. “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.”

It’s not hard to imagine what these interventions might comprise. Smart watches are capable of monitoring several vital signs already, and in fact have alerted users to such things as heart-rate irregularities. A smart bandage would use any signal it can collect — “optical, biochemical, bioelectronic, or mechanical” — to monitor the patient and either recommend or automatically adjust treatment.

A simple example might be a wound that the bandage detects from certain chemical signals is becoming infected with a given kind of bacteria. It can then administer the correct antibiotic in the correct dose and stop when necessary rather than wait for a prescription. Or if the bandage detects shearing force and then an increase in heart rate, it’s likely the patient has been moved and is in pain — out come the painkillers. Of course, all this information would be relayed to the caregiver.

This system may require some degree of artificial intelligence, although of course it would have to be pretty limited. But biological signals can be noisy and machine learning is a powerful tool for sorting through that kind of data.

BETR is a four-year program, during which DARPA hopes that it can spur innovation in the space and create a “closed-loop, adaptive system” that improves outcomes significantly. There’s a further ask to have a system that addresses osseointegration surgery for prosthetics fitting — a sad necessity for many serious injuries incurred during combat.

One hopes that the technology will trickle down, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s all largely theoretical for now, though it seems more than possible that the pieces could come together well ahead of the deadline.

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