High-tech dressing is wartime success
September 20, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s a mere 4-by-4 inch square, but manufacturers of the new HemCon bandage say it’s saving the lives of troops in the combat zone.
The U.S. Army ordered thousands of the bandages even before the Iraq conflict and has reported success from medics in the field, said HemCon co-founder Dr. William Wiesmann, a retired colonel who spent 21 years in the Army and served as director of the combat casualty research facility at Fort Detrick, Md.
“The bandage was developed for one specific purpose: to stop bleeding,” Wiesmann said. “It was designed primarily for a prehospital setting, and to help the soldier control one of the biggest causes of death, which is hemorrhage.” Roughly 80 percent of critical battle casualties die within the first 10 minutes from bleeding out.
The military focused on developing blood-clotting bandages and other treatments after Army Rangers bled to death following a firefight in Somalia in 1993, said Army Col. John Holcomb, commander of the Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
While the bandage still is an IND, or investigational new drug with the Food and Drug Administration, it has been fielded in Iraq though not as widely used as the HemCon bandage, which Holcomb said he found impressive and “quite revolutionary.”
HemCon is for severe bleeds and does not replace the standard gauze carried by medics.
“Out of 100 injuries, about 90 of them are not going to be life-threatening bleeds, so for those they won’t need the advanced hemorrhage control bandages,” Holcomb said. “But of those 10, a significant number of those soldiers will die and this is what can help save them.”
It’s still too early to determine how well it has worked for troops in Iraq because “usage has been low,” Holcomb said.
“But I think a lot of soldiers with injuries would have died and didn’t because they had these new hemorrhage control devices,” to include new tourniquets, other blood-clotting agents, and revamped protocols on giving injured troops IV fluids and medications in the field, Holcomb said.
The HemCon bandage, which took three years to develop, is made of literally millions of extremely thin layers of a product made from ground shrimp shells, Wiesmann said.
The shrimp shells are boiled in lye and reconstituted into a crystal to make it more positively charged and thus attract negatively charged blood cell membranes. The bandage becomes “like a magnet” drawing in the blood cells, said co-founder Dr. Kenton Gregory, director of the Oregon Medical Laser Center at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, and who runs the HemCon side of business in Portland, Ore.
When applied to a bleed, the bandage bonds to the wound and the seal aids to control bleeding. Also, as the bandage soaks up blood, it builds pressure and that added applied pressure to the wound goes toward controlling the bleed, explained Wiesmann, who founded the BioSTAR Group in Maryland following his retirement.
To date, the company has shipped roughly 10,000 of the bandages to field medics in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. The Army has signed a $2 million contract with HemCon to produce roughly 20,000 dressings.
The bandages, at $90 apiece, aren’t cheap, he said. But as production increases, the price will go down.
“We’re getting a bang for our buck,” Holcomb said. “While $90 might seem expensive compared to the $1 gauze, it’s nothing when you think it can save lives.”
HemCon isn’t the only new method to control bleeding employed in the field. Both Army and Marine Corps troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are using a new product called QuikClot, a granular substance described as looking like cat litter that is poured into a wound and speeds up the clotting process.
The reported drawbacks to the product is that it can wash away if a wound is bleeding profusely, and can cause burns.