Eric Ferski, 7-SIGMA Simulation Systems product manager, assembles the face of a patient simulator representing a burn victim.
Eric Ferski, 7-SIGMA Simulation Systems product manager, assembles the face of a patient simulator representing a burn victim during a medical convention in January. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As “Military City, USA,” San Antonio has benefited from the traditional presence of military bases, which have brought jobs and federal funds to the area. One area of untapped economic potential is military medicine, leading the City of San Antonio to develop a strategic plan to jump-start economic growth in military medicine.

The City and its San Antonio Economic Development Corporation (SAEDC) recently hosted the first of three Military Medical Industry Days, showcasing military medical research and presenting opportunities for collaboration with community stakeholders.

“The military is a huge player in our workforce and our economy,” said Teresa Evans, the chief operating officer of Trauma Insight and a City consultant who led the development of the strategic plan.

The military invests a lot of money into solving medically related problems but needs industry help to produce a device or bring a new drug through Food and Drug Administration approval, for instance. By strengthening collaborations between the military and commercial partners in San Antonio, more dollars would stay in the city, which would create jobs and help grow the local economy, Evans said.

“The holy grail would be to pluck those ideas from those researchers inside of the military, partner those ideas up with civilian industry partners, and have those ideas grown into a company that then results in jobs and growth in our city.”

From an ambulance system for rapid triage of injured soldiers during the U.S. Civil War to blood transfusions and hemorrhage control methods during World War I, the military has a long history of medical innovation, explained Col. (Dr.) Jerome Buller, commander of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (ISR), at the March 28 event at the Henry B. González Convention Center.

Today, the ISR focuses on improving treatment of burn wounds, which have become more prevalent in modern warfare. Currently, wounded soldiers are airlifted out of the battlefield and quickly receive hospital care. In the future, quick evacuations may not be possible. There is a need for longer-term care in the battlefield, requiring new technologies such as wearables and sensor technology, medical robots, and unmanned systems to identify and evacuate casualties.

Medical robotics, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies could also be used to improve clinical monitoring and decision-making in the field. Only 50 to 100 Army surgeons (of which no more than 20 are trauma surgeons) are available for deployment each year, so medics, who receive only 16 weeks of training before deployment, play a critical role in keeping soldiers alive during prolonged battlefield care. New technologies could provide much-needed assistance.

Although the Army medical corps has identified these needs, it cannot fill them alone. Industry partners are needed to develop the research into new devices and treatments.

The development of a negative pressure wound therapy vacuum to remove infection-causing bacteria and speed wound healing is one example of a successful military-industry collaboration. The device, which modified an existing model used in civilian settings, was developed and improved for military use by San Antonio-based Acelity‘s KCI in partnership with the U.S. Air Force. It was showcased at Health Cell’s Answering the Call panel on collaboration between local industry and the Department of Defense held on April 2.

While the Industry Days event at the convention center highlighted opportunities, there are barriers to taking an idea and developing it into a commercially viable product, said Evans. These challenges include identifying the right partners, navigating the maze of government contracts and technology transfer agreements, and raising money to enable the collaborative work.

To help participants understand this process, Robert Charles, chief of medical research law at U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, presented an overview of the different types of contracts and technology transfer mechanisms available for companies interested in partnering with military labs.

“The best-case scenario is that we have an innovation that not only helps our military, it also helps our civilians,” Evans said. “Because now you’ll have a big enough market that you can make money back.”

Although these efforts are about business, not philanthropy, many stakeholders in the city support the military mission. Evans cited the example of local entrepreneur and investor David Spencer, whose company Prytime Medical is known for developing the ER-REBOA catheter, a device designed to stop internal bleeding in patients with traumatic injuries. The device was developed for military use and is now used in civilian settings.

Hoping to encourage similar partnerships and promote economic growth, the City and SAEDC are set to host additional Industry Day events in the coming months with the Naval Medical Research Unit San Antonio at Fort Sam Houston and the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland Air Force Base.

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Viviane Callier

Viviane Callier holds a doctorate in biology from Duke University and is a freelance science journalist in San Antonio.