By MATTHEW WATKINS
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — A soldier wounded in the Iraqi desert or the rugged mountains of Afghanistan is much more likely to die there than if he suffered the same wounds in the United States.
Matthew Miller and his team of researchers at Texas A&M University want to change that, but it's going to take a feat of science to do so.
Massive blood loss is the cause of half of the deaths of soldiers killed in action, officials said, adding that it's too difficult for units to carry and refrigerate the liters of blood that could save their lives.
Many deaths could be prevented if soldiers could be rushed to hospitals within an hour, but battlefield terrain and hostile enemies often make that impossible.
"What we have been charged with is to find a way to stabilize them so they could ultimately be evacuated and get definitive care," said Miller, who is a professor of veterinary medicine at A&M.
The most promising solution, Miller said, is inducing the victim into a hibernation-like state so his breathing and heartbeat slow down. Putting the patient into that state for several hours could extend his life until he receives adequate care, he said.
Miller's group ranges from 15 to 25 people — depending on the phase of the project. They have joined forces with teams of researchers across the country to tackle the problem.
Many animals, including the ground squirrel, naturally enter hibernation to survive cold, barren winters.
"Those animals have figured out how to shut down their metabolic needs for three months and then wake up and be no worse for wear," Miller said. "If we can figure out how they can do that, we may have just figured out the problem."
The goal, Miller said, would be to produce small one- or two-ounce vials that could be injected on the battlefield and cause the desired effect. A lot of work must be done before that happens, and researchers are working against a tight 18-month deadline.
The idea was proposed by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which poses problems related to the military and national security and solicits solutions from leading researchers. Promising solutions end up receiving the grants and allow the researchers to develop their ideas.
A&M received a $9.9 million grant from the agency to develop ways to test the hibernation drugs. The test subjects must be seriously injured and left untreated for hours, meaning humans can't be the guinea pigs.
Instead, Miller said his team is looking at testing actual pigs.
"We are a lot closerli dali
to pigs than a lot of people want to admit," Miller said. "The pig is closer to the human in the cardiovascular system" and has been used to test stents and many other heart treatments.
The pigs would be anesthetized and lose blood on a surgeon's table. The blood loss would be comparable to what a person injured in a serious car accident might lose, Miller said.
"The pigs wouldn't feel a thing," he added, perhaps in anticipation of objections by animal rights activists. He added that developing good testing methods would minimize the number of animals tested upon.
The drug would then be injected and its respiratory function and vital signs monitored.
"What we want to know is: Can we get these guys to a point where they can ultimately survive?" he asked.
If they do, the drug would undergo rigorous testing by the Food and Drug Administration and then be tested on humans. Researchers would have to develop ways that the drug could remain stable without refrigeration so it could be carried on the battlefield.
"Developing an effective, easily administered medication would save countless lives that would otherwise be lost," said Theresa Fossum, founder and director of the Texas A&M Institute for Preclinical Studies, which opened last week and where much of the research is being done at A&M.
That possibility is important to Miller's team, which has three veterans of the armed forces, two people married to veterans and three people with children serving overseas.