Soldiers and Stem Cells: The Future of Military Medicine

Introduction

Medical treatment on the battlefield is perhaps one of the most challenging areas for healthcare professionals. While it bears more similarities with typical civilian medical management, it primarily deals with injuries from explosions, which can be challenging for both the patient and the medical professionals attending to the patient. Blast injuries often cause severe tissue damage, with extensive injuries being very challenging to treat.

Due to the nature of common injuries experienced by military personnel on the battlefield, interest in the use of stem cells as a treatment modality has grown. Stem cell transplants/treatments have long been considered a breakthrough in medicine and, for many patients who have not had success in traditional medical treatments, the use of stem cells offers hope.

How Stem Cells Work

Briefly, in living organisms, stem cells are the most basic form of cells that are yet to be differentiated. Often called ‘blank cells’ because of this characteristic, stem cells are capable of developing into differentiated cells with more specific functions in various parts of the body, then replicate and multiply. This means they can either remain a stem cell or turn into other cell types.

These abilities make stem cells a versatile treatment option, especially as stem cell treatments have so many promising applications in medicine. In military medicine, where regenerative medicine can be highly beneficial, this opens the door to many possibilities.

Promising Applications of Stem Cell Treatments in Military Medicine

A stem cell is a type of cell that can renew itself while still being able to transform into any cell type in your body. They are a promising source for replacing as well as restoring destroyed tissue because of their cellular plasticity.

As such, stem cells can offer huge benefits to military medicine and below are 5 promising applications:

1. Pain Relief

Stem cell injections involve harvesting stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow and injecting them in affected areas. It can give the body a healing boost to rebuild the injured tissue, which aids in relieving pain. 

The stem cells can aid in reducing inflammation by renewing and repairing the tissues. This treatment can be effective in addressing chronic pain since it targets the affected areas themselves rather than just relieving the symptoms.

There are clinics and treatment centres that specialise in stem cell injections, such as Walker Spine & Sport. It is best to do your research/due diligence before you pursue this type of treatment to ensure that it is the suitable for your needs.

2. Tissue Repair and Reconstitution 

Because of the diverse nature of combat injuries, stem cell treatment has increased interest from military medical professionals. The increase in explosive attacks during active duty often results in injuries involving several groups of muscles, tissues, and organs, meaning that tissue reconstitution/repair is a primary goal for military stem cell applications. 

Some of these include:

Type of TissueOutline
Connective Tissues1. Almost all modern combat injuries have musculoskeletal damage (muscles, bone, connective tissue, fat).
2. While trained combat medics, better body armour, intensive injury care, and rapid evacuation have increased soldiers’ survivals, the percentage of orthopaedic injuries and impairment has remained high.
3. Injuries like this can limit a patient’s mobility, high rate of pain, and most of the time, total disability.
4. New stem cell sources are discovered from within the musculoskeletal tissue. Their differentiation profile and availability make them key specimens examined as the most promising cell group for future therapies.
Sensory Tissues1. Polycarbonate eye armour has helped reduced the number of eye injuries in soldiers.
2. Unfortunately, with high explosive fragmentary munitions, soldiers still experience severe ocular injuries that cause vision loss.
3. Recently, retinal cells are being produced from embryonic sources, showing progress towards creating ocular stem cells that help restore vision.
4. Other than vision injuries, auditory loss is another common sensory loss from blast and war traumas. The blasts from military explosives and guns can damage your ear, resulting in terminal hearing loss and vertigo.
5. Neural stem cells have shown a similar trait to the inner ear hair cells that can have the ability to re-establish some auditory contacts.
Skin1. In almost every combat, skin is destroyed from injuries resulting in large amounts of scar tissue.
2. Whether due to chemical or penetrating injury, skin coverage is essential for the proper healing of wounds in larger areas where dehydration and infection are the concern.
3. The good news is that the skin has storage of various stem cells that can produce a new epidermis. Plus, they are relatively resilient and constantly regenerates.
4. While there are no current clinical uses, skin stem cells can be a promising source for understanding the mechanism for its regeneration that helps accelerate recovery and pave the way for deep-skin grafts in the future.

3. Modulating Properties

While most of the excitement surrounding stem cells in military medicine is centred on their potential to replace and restore damaged tissue, they have far more potential than that.

Most stem cells have a protective and even directive potential. It means that stem cells have helped in the direct healing of tissues by secreting various bioactive molecules and preparing for proper cellular growth and integration.

Also, they can produce cytokines and growth factors that help create a therapeutic outcome, reducing scar formation and cell death while stimulating new blood vessel development and cell growth.

While these characteristics of stem cells are not yet completely understood, their ability to increase the healing response and support tissue growth and repair adds a new area of use in regenerative medicine that is now unravelling.

4. Role in Cognitive Behaviour

One of the hallmark injuries associated with wars – such as Afghanistan and Iraq – is a traumatic brain injury. And this traumatic injury can have psychological effects, resulting in adverse outcomes for the individual such as substance abuse, depression, personality disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Currently, the role of neural stem cells in cognitive behaviour is unclear. However, their capabilities for regeneration and neurogenesis (formation of new neurons) can positively impact cognitive disorders and other common aspects of mental health.

After all, it is of utmost importance that military personnel can transition back into society and enjoy a normal/good quality of life – both psychologically and physically – after serving their country.  

5. Blood Pharming

During combat operations, access to blood may be reduced or there may be blood shortages (think blood types), particularly during mass casualty events. Further, there are also the cost and safety concerns associated with storage and disease screening to consider.

Scientists are currently performing research and conducting studies to find new ways and technologies to produce red blood cells in the lab that are readily available, untainted, and free of storage lesions. And, for this, stem cells have the potential to remove the problem of blood supply.  

While progress is slow, scientists are finding ways to use stems cells for producing large volumes of blood needed for viable applications.

Summary

The vast majority of stem cell use has yet to be realised in clinical trials; however, there is no denying that stem cells will likely have some potential positive impacts on regenerative medicine and other applications such as blood pharming. For this, stem cells will continue to be of great interest to the military in providing the best care for injured military personnel.

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