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Chemical detectors could aid soldiers

USF researchers are developing a device that would aid medics on the battlefield in pinpointing internal injuries that may not be immediately apparent.

The device, a project of researchers in the Colleges of Engineering and Medicine, would detect biomarkers that are released when a person is injured.

“A biomarker is any chemical that can provide information about what’s happening inside the body,” said Dr. Joel A. Strom, researcher and professor of internal medicine and engineering. The device focuses on testing biomarkers in blood or plasma.

On the battlefield, Strom said, bombs and other explosives can create visible wounds, but sometimes it is difficult to tell what is going on inside the body.

“Instead of one area of injury, they create an injury field that is very tough to determine its severity,” Strom said. “Inflammation induced by a wound can affect organs in others areas of the body.”

The handheld detector — called a point-of-care device because it is used at the site of injury — tests blood or plasma taken from the body for certain biomarkers. These detectors would be able to determine who needs immediate care and who can go longer without medical attention.

“We would be interested in biomarkers that show up early after injury because that’s when the person can be triaged properly,” said Brenda Flam, a molecular biochemist working on the project.

Chemicals released after an injury could be read by the detector.

“The reading is an indication of how badly hurt someone is, and then we go on from there and basically use that information to determine how people should be treated,” Strom said.

The main goal of the project is to improve medical treatments and, ultimately, save lives.

The point-of-care device also has civilian applications, such as the detection of heart attacks by emergency medical services. Strom said that expanding the project to look at such applications is one of their goals.

It could also be used after an incident such as a car accident.

“Sometimes people look fine, but later they become sick because of organ damage,” Strom said.

Biomarker research at USF has been under development for a little over three years. Strom said he does not know when the device could become commercialized, as it is still in a developmental stage.

Funding came from the U.S. Department of Defense under an appropriations bill earmarked by Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Indian Shores). Tony Licardi, a spokesman for Young, said the research group has been allocated about $3 million since 2006.

Young has secured other earmarked funds for the University. Out of the 13 earmarked projects for the 2008 fiscal year, nine were for defense and had Young’s name attached. He is the ranking Republican on the House Appropriation Committee’s defense subcommittee.

USF researchers are cooperating with others from Keck Graduate Institute in California and Loyola University in Chicago. At Loyola, researchers are testing for biomarkers in animals such as mice and pigs, Strom said, and USF hopes to begin testing for human biomarkers soon.

Students of all levels, from undergraduate to doctoral, work on the project, and it has graduated three doctoral students so far, Strom said.

“This project is not only a scientific one and an engineering one, but also an educational one,” he said. “One of its key missions is to advance the education and expose students at various levels throughout the University.”