Around half of U.S. troop fatalities are caused by blood loss from battlefield injuries. Now, with another 30,000 troops deploying to Afghanistan, the Pentagon is pushing for medical advances that can save more lives during combat.
The Defense Department's latest research idea: Stop bleeding injuries by turning pigs into the semi-undead. If it works out, we humans could be the next ones to be zombified.
Military's mad-science arm Darpa has awarded $9.9 million to the Texas A&M Institute for Preclinical Studies (TIPS), to develop treatments that can extend a "golden period" when injured war fighters have the best chance of coming back from massive blood loss.
Odds of survival plummet after an hour — during combat, that kind of quick evacuation, triage and treatment is often impossible.
The institute's research will be based on previous Darpa-funded efforts. One project, at Stanford University, hypothesized that humans could one day mimic the hibernation abilities of squirrels — who emerge from winter months no worse for wear — using a pancreatic enzyme we have in common with the critters.
The other, led by Dr. Mark Roth at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, used nematode worms and rats to test how hydrogen sulfide could block the body's ability to use oxygen — creating a kind of "suspended animation" where hearts stop beating and wounds don't bleed. After removing 60 percent of the rat's blood, Dr. Roth managed to keep the critters alive for 10 hours using his hydrogen sulfide cocktail.
The next logical step: Try the same thing on pigs.
They've got a similar cardiovascular system to humans, and TIPS researchers Theresa Fossum and Matthew Miller think they can accurately predict human results from the swine trials. Using anesthetized pigs, the doctors are testing various compounds, some containing hydrogen sulfide, to find one that can safely keep the hemorrhaging animals "as close to death as possible."
With a 15-person team working exclusively on the project, the institute anticipates successful results within 18 months. "Darpa wants this to happen yesterday, because it was needed yesterday," Dr. Miller told Danger Room.
Once the team comes up with the right elixir, it'll undergo federally mandated safety testing. After that, the zombie vaccine will be sent to the battlefield for human application.
Dr. Fossum predicts that each soldier will carry a syringe into combat zones or remote areas, and medic teams will be equipped with several.
A single injection will minimize metabolic needs, de-animating injured troops by shutting down brain and heart function. Once treatment can be carried out, they'll be "re-animated" and — hopefully — as good as new.
From rats, to pigs, to troops — to civilians. Dr. Miller anticipates dozens of medical applications, including the preservation of organs before transplants and suspension of life-threatening emergencies, like heart attacks and strokes.
"Everybody's talking about the military use of this, and that's our focus now," he says. "But really, this could be much, much bigger than that."