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Patch May Deliver Nutrients to Future Warfighters

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2000, Feb. 28, 2000 – U.S. combat troops may get part of their daily diet through their arms if a new concept works out.

Army Soldier Center researchers in Natick, Mass., are working on a transdermal nutrient delivery system -- a skin patch similar in concept to nicotine and motion sickness patches. The new system could be a part of every combat service member’s kit by 2025.

Gerald Darsch, joint project director for the DoD Combat Feeding Program at Natick, said the current developmental version is about the size of a conventional adhesive bandage and three to four times thicker. The final version will be encased in some polymer to be very flexible, he speculated.

"Service members probably won't even notice they have it on," he noted.

The patches would contain "micronutrient" reservoirs and microscopic "pumps" and "plumbing." The nutrients would augment or supplement a warfighter’s diet during periods of high-intensity conflict. Officials see a use for the system to combat cold weather and high altitude stress, for instance.

“The idea is to keep the warfighter’s cognitive and physical performance sharpened at the optimal level,” Darsch said. “It could mean fewer dead or wounded U.S. service members.”

Darsch said the system could incorporate various micronutrients. Researchers, he said, are considering 65 to 70 chemicals that might be effective and safe. Two candidates, for example, are tyrsone, which has been proven to help combat cold and high altitude stress, and glutathione, which could help reduce muscle fatigue and increase the ability of the liver and kidneys to filter out metabolic wastes.

“We have identified some that might be beneficial, but there still needs to be a lot of research done. What are the doses that we should administer? What are the lasting effects?” he asked. “We need to be sure before we start giving these to warfighters.”

The system would dispense micronutrients when a self- contained near-infrared sensor determines the wearer needs them. The chemicals would be absorbed by osmosis through the skin.

Even using the transdermal patch, though, service members will still be hungry because the patches won't replace food. “You can still eat even with the transdermal system,” Darsch said. “Am I going to tell you that a Milky Way or a Snickers bar still won’t find its way into the rucksack of a soldier? Our service members are pretty bright. They’ll take whatever pogey bait is necessary.”

Darsch said researchers could probably add an appetite suppressant or something that will make the hypothalamus think the stomach is full. “We probably could do that, but would we want to? I’m not sure,” he said.

Darsch said some outside agencies are interested in the concept. “We need to get industry and academia together with us on this,” he said. “Firefighters, police, mountain rescue people, all could benefit from this concept.”

He said the Army has spent just “thousands” on the concept. If accepted, he thinks a “50 percent solution” to the engineering of the transdermal patch system is possible by 2010.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn artist’s concept of how the transdermal nutrient delivery system would work. A sensor and micropumps in the adhesive patch would deliver nutrient chemicals that could help wearers weather the effects of cold, high altitude, muscle fatigue and other stress.  
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