June 20, 2001
Biotechnology promises major advances for U.S. Army
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. A report being released today (Wednesday, 6/20) recommends that the U.S. Army take advantage of dramatic advancements in biotechnology that promise to help soldiers survive and perform better in the 21st century.
The report, from the National Research Council's Board on Army Science and Technology, was prepared by a 16-member committee chaired by Michael Ladisch, a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering and agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University. The council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.
By the year 2025, biotechnology will likely bring advances such as "rugged computer memories" made from genetically engineered proteins, camouflage materials and lightweight armor inspired by living organisms, portable solar-power systems, "biological markers" that help to distinguish friendly soldiers from the enemy, wristwatch-size sensors and devices that detect biological and chemical warfare agents. Research also promises to make possible the creation of new vaccines, drugs and wound-healing technologies, and medical applications that provide broad benefits to world health, states the report.
"These are but a few of a myriad of possibilities, some of which may never be developed for lack of commercial incentive, thus challenging the Army to devise ways of influencing their development," according to the report, "Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications."
Recommendations in the report stress the importance of developing defensive technologies aimed at improving the survivability and effectiveness of U.S. soldiers. The report specifically does not address the use of biotechnology for offensive applications.
To illustrate the dramatic significance of emerging technologies, the report includes hypothetical, but realistic, battlefield scenarios in the year 2025.
"Although soldiers in 2025 may look much the same as their present-day counterparts, they will be drawn from a society that has been armed by biotechnology with increased strength and endurance and superior resistance to disease and aging," the report states. "By then, biosensors may be able to detect chemical, biological and environmental threats of all kinds, bio-electronics components could enable combat systems to survive in high-radiation environments, biologically inspired materials could provide light protective armor for soldiers, and therapies for shock trauma from excessive bleeding could be developed."
Biotechnology uses organisms, tissues, cells or the molecular components derived from living things to make products or to perform functions. It's a technology used to produce drugs and antibiotics like penicillin, and to make new materials and devices. Biotechnology also sometimes involves altering the workings of cells or components inside cells, including their genetic material.
Ladisch said the committee, made up of experts from industry, academia and government, was formed in late 1999 to create the report, which also was reviewed by an independent group of researchers before it was approved.
"Some of these ideas may really seem far out because we are looking toward the year 2025," Ladisch said.
The report includes insights about likely advances resulting from research into the genetic structure and function of humans and other organisms, including possible biological warfare agents.
"If soldiers on the battlefield are exposed to a biowarfare agent, advances in genomics could make it possible to quickly identify this agent and produce a vaccine," Ladisch said.
The report has two overall conclusions:
To keep pace with the unprecedented rate of discovery and the anticipated increase in biotechnology developments, the Army will have to establish new, effective partnerships with the emerging biotechnology industry, participate in research and develop the capabilities to act on opportunities as they arise.
Because commercial markets for medical applications will drive many advances in biotechnology, Army scientists and engineers must expand their understanding of biology's role in research leading to military applications.
The report recommends that the Army adopt new approaches to work with the private sector, encouraging relationships between government and industry. The report also urges the Army to invest in education, assembling "a cadre of science and technology professionals capable of translating advances in the biosciences into engineering practice."
Also, to help speed the development of certain technologies, the report suggests that the Army focus its research in several high-priority areas, including:
New types of rugged, high-capacity computer memories based on proteins to store data in portable battlefield computers carried by individual soldiers.
"Self-replicating" wound-healing technologies, such as methods for growing new skin for burn victims, growing blood vessels and regenerating bones for the wounded.
Technologies aimed at making new vaccines in the battlefield to treat exotic diseases and to counter biological warfare agents.
Developing new drugs and therapies to treat shock.
Using the genetic characteristics of soldiers to increase the effectiveness of vaccines.
The report notes that Army-sponsored research benefits society as a whole and has historically promoted the development of drugs to fight diseases, such as malaria, prevalent in the world's poorest regions.
"By 2020, an estimated 7 billion to 8 billion people will live in less affluent areas of the world," states the report. "Because it must be prepared to deploy forces in these areas, the Army should continue to remain closely involved in the development of therapeutics that could not only protect U.S. forces, but also contribute to world health."
Copies of the report are available from the National Academy Press for $27.75 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and 95 cents for each additional copy; call (202) 334-3313 or (800) 624-6242, or order on the Internet.
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