05 May 2017

Dstl: piloting innovation in defence medical sciences

Medical treatment in the civilian and defence worlds has always gone hand in hand and developments in medical technology and innovation benefit from collaboration between defence, industry and academia, says Dstl’s Neal Smith. Mark Lane reports.

Medical science plays a crucial role in the UK’s defence capability and it is an area in which technical advances are moving apace.

Neal Smith, Capability Advisor for Medical Sciences at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), spoke in DPRTE 2017’s Research and Technology Hub about the role of innovation in defence medical sciences and the benefits it can bring.

He gave attendees an insight into some of the projects funded by Dstl and other Ministry of Defence and UK government bodies aimed at reducing mortality on the battlefield and providing the best possible medical treatments.

He said: “We do this by piloting innovation and innovative solutions, capturing new technologies and advances in capability – not just in medicine or biomedical sciences but in a range of disciplines, whether that’s engineering, diagnostics, human factors engineering, materials or computer simulations.”

Dstl works in partnership with other bodies to meet evolving threats on the battlefield, looking at changing equipment and methods of operation and at training and better securing the safety of both the medic and the casualty.

He explained that Dstl is also working increasingly with the Department of Health, with which, for example, a few years ago, it set up the Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology Research Centre at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where all Service personnel injured overseas are returned for treatment.

“Increasingly we are trying to tap more into the knowledge, expertise and innovation that is available to us by working with industry, academia and more importantly now SMEs through mechanisms such as the Defence and Security Accelerator and its predecessor the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE),” he said.

He gave several examples of projects supported by Dstl in recent years and explained how it has worked on these with CDE on some of the most enduring themes within medical research, and with academia and industry.

Smith added: “We are also looking at novel systems to help those who might be injured on the battlefield in terms of quicker diagnostics and interventions – whether that’s new bandages or life-saving devices – and also looking at health surveillance, not just on the battlefield but also in training.”

In 2012 Dstl launched a competition called The Extremes of Medical Defence, following that in 2014 with a competition called The Medic of the Future.

Last year the Laboratory launched another competition called Detect and Treat Hearing Loss and Tinnitus. Smith explained that these are major injuries encountered by serving personnel who are often subject to sudden impulsive noise to continuous low-level noise.

“We are looking at innovative ways of improving this and picking up hearing loss quicker so we can intervene faster. We also issued a challenge to treat and restore hearing. This is pretty much blue skies thinking but there are mechanisms which are potentially available in terms of improving the way that people lip read or can enhance the small sounds that they can pick up; or, looking very far into the future, there are drugs that might be injected into the inner ear which could potentially restore hearing loss or alleviate the effects of tinnitus.”

With the Defence and Security Accelerator, Dstl also has the Accelerator Enduring Challenge competition which includes a theme on human performance to improve resilience and survivability training.

Support for innovation in systems for medics and first responders includes new equipment such as sensors and diagnostics.

Smith cited the example of Cambridge Design Partnership which Dstl sponsored to develop a patient monitor in the form of a device which clips on the nose and can monitor breathing and heart rates.

He also mentioned a company called Inova Design Solutions which has developed a device called Bodytrak which uses the ear as a site for monitoring core body temperature and other vital signs including heart rate and oxygen saturation levels.

“Core body temperature rise is a key parameter for us for monitoring heat stress and heat fatigue,” he noted. “It’s essential for us on lots of training exercises that we don’t overheat people or burden people too much. This new site for monitoring temperature is a lot more palatable than the current options available to personnel which include thermometers stuck in various parts of the body or swallowing pills.”

The device is currently being trialled on Exercise Ice Maiden, an expedition of MOD personnel to cross Antarctica.

Dstl has supported a company called Elegant Design Solutions which has developed a blood transfer unit, a portable fridge for carrying eight units of blood at the correct temperature which can be carried on the back and can be powered by mains, batteries or a chemical pack.

Smith explained that, as a consequence of advances in surgical techniques saving many more lives on the battlefield, there are increasing numbers of military personnel who have received traumatic injuries who need ongoing care and help in improving their quality of life. These include multiple amputees and others with long-term rehabilitation needs.

Examples cited by Smith included a specially woven sock or sleeve developed by Nottingham Trent University in collaboration with the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court to cushion a prosthetic limb and provide greater comfort.

“The early signs are that this provides a more easy to wear solution – it’s breathable, and it doesn’t produce sweating which leads to infection and a cascade of particular problems,” he said.

He also described a one-arm-drive wheelchair specifically designed for a triple amputee who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan. It can be stripped down and packed into a car and is even ruggedised for sports use.

He explained that Dstl had invested heavily in recent years in simulation in medical training.

“Not only is it expensive to train our people on a regular basis and refresh their training, there is also a moral and critical imperative to do it in a different manner,” he said. “We necessarily involve the use of cadavers or live animals in medical training and we need to get away from doing that.”

To this end a call was launched through the Centre for Defence Enterprise to explore training methods using virtual reality or new materials that enable first responders to refresh and maintain their skills and rehearse triage or exercise medical evacuation; several projects have been sponsored.

One such project involved sponsoring Sheffield Hallam University to develop an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset for training military surgeons.

Smith finished by outlining future areas of interest for Dstl including medical treatment in extreme environments with longer times to reach field hospitals, and in wearable technologies, smart dressings and skin-mounted sensors.

He concluded: “We are always looking for new ideas in medical sciences, new ways of doing things and new ways of operating.”

For more information, visit: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/defence-science-and-technology-laboratory

 

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