TOPICS > Science > Breakthroughs

How mini sponges could save lives on the battlefield and beyond

November 7, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
Combat medics have one mission: keep the wounded alive until they can be safely treated elsewhere. But while survival rates have improved dramatically in the last few decades, one of the biggest challenges that medics still face is uncontrolled bleeding. The NewsHour’s Cat Wise reports on a new invention that stops bleeding much faster than traditional gauze.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, the “NewsHour” begins a new series on invention and innovation called Breakthroughs.

Over the coming months, we will explore the economic and social change invention generates both here and abroad, highlighting the passion of the inventors and the people who benefit from their creations.

The “NewsHour”‘s Cat Wise has our first report, which looks at a new device to stop uncontrolled bleeding on the battlefield and that may one day save the lives of civilians.

A warning:  Some of the images may be disturbing to some viewers.

NARRATOR: The fight for terrain is up forward. Back here is the fight to save life.

CAT WISE: Throughout the history of war, from battles long ago to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, medics on the front lines have had one main goal: keep the injured alive until they can be safely evacuated to a treatment center.

While those killed in action since the beginning of the Iraq war are almost 90 percent fewer than during the Vietnam War, due in part to better medic training and faster evacuations, one of the biggest challenges medics still face is uncontrolled bleeding. It is the leading cause of preventable battlefield deaths.

And while tourniquets can be applied to certain extremity wounds, some areas of the body, like the armpit and pelvis, are difficult to compress. For those wounds, military medics have had to rely on a very simple tool.

JOHN STEINBAUGH, RevMedx: For centuries, everybody’s used gauze to stop bleeding. Back to the earliest times, you pack material into a wound, and attempt to put pressure on it.

CAT WISE: John Steinbaugh is a former Special Forces medic who served for more than twenty years in the Army. He was on the front lines in Iraq when calls for better equipment started going up the chain of command.

JOHN STEINBAUGH: Back in 2006-2007, at the height of the war, medics were getting fed up with the standard gauze. And we started seeing wounds that were much worse than what we were seeing at the beginning of the war. Medics were having more difficulties stopping the bleeding.

And the way the medics described the device they wanted was fix-a- flat. So if you think of your tire, you inject the fix-a-flat into your tire, it finds the escaping air, it plugs it, and done.

CAT WISE: So, Steinbaugh and a team of experts from the military and private sector got to work. Early ideas like inserting foam or gel into the wounds didn’t sufficiently stop the bleeding, but soon they stumbled on something that did work.

JOHN STEINBAUGH: We literally went to Williams-Sonoma, brought compressed sponges out of a kitchen store, loaded them in homemade syringes that we made, and put them in a model, and they expanded and worked.

CAT WISE: Steinbaugh retired from the military and joined RevMedx, the private medical device company taking the lead on the product’s development.

There, Steinbaugh and his colleagues spent three years refining the device with the help of a $5 million grant from the U.S. Army. And earlier this year, following FDA approval, the company launched the product, now called the XStat.

Steinbaugh gave us a demo recently in the company lab.

JOHN STEINBAUGH: So, on the battlefield, at the point of injury, the medic will come up to a casualty. He will assess the casualty. He will pull out the device, lock the handle. He will inject the syringe into the wound close to the artery, and then he will depress the plunger and rapidly apply the XStat to the wound.

Because the sponges are compressed, once they make contact with blood, they expand 15 times their size. They fill the cavity and put pressure on the walls of the cavity to be able to stop the bleeding without having to apply pressure.

CAT WISE: While the XStat has yet to be used on an injured human, this is a photograph of a soldier practicing with the device on a dummy.

Steinbaugh says the company’s extensive testing on animals and cadavers shows bleeding stops after about 20 seconds, compared to three to five minutes with traditional gauze. The company, which has 12 employees, is now ramping up production of the XStat for the military at their headquarters outside Portland, Oregon.

Roughly 100 are made here a week. Each of the mini-sponges in a syringe are coated with a blood-clotting chemical, and they are embedded with special markers that show up in X-rays, in case one is accidentally left in a wound during surgery.

DR. MARTIN SCHREIBER, Oregon Health & Science University: The major issue is getting the patient alive to a surgeon. That’s really the goal.

CAT WISE: Dr. Martin Schreiber is chief of trauma at the Oregon Health & Science University and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. He’s led trauma care for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’s been closely following the development of the XStat.

DR. MARTIN SCHREIBER: The key with this product, though, is it has to be placed into a fixed-size wound. If you have a penetrating injury to, say, the area under the clavicle, which creates a very fixed wound, this can be very effective.

CAT WISE: Schreiber says he’s seen a number of medical innovations start in the military that eventually make their way into civilian trauma care.

DR. MARTIN SCHREIBER: I have to say, I have never experienced anything worse in my life then war. I have never seen anything as bad as war, but there is some good that comes out of war, and that is the medical technologies that are advanced.

CAT WISE: In fact, John Steinbaugh and his colleagues are now working on a smaller XStat that could be rolled out for civilian first-responders, such as EMTs and police, as early as next year.

JOHN STEINBAUGH: Ever since the first day we started working on this, there’s been an immediate interest for other types of products, smaller shrapnel wounds, or small-caliber pistol wounds, and even in the civilian community, like law enforcement, or prison knife wounds and stabbings.

CAT WISE: They have also developed XGauze, traditional gauze embedded with XStat sponges, an everyday belt which turns into a tourniquet that was inspired in part by the Boston bombings.

And the company’s sponge technology may even one day help women in low-resource settings who are experiencing postpartum hemorrhaging. RevMedx is shipping out the first batch of XStats to the Army this month. The device currently costs about $200.

The company anticipates their military orders will keep them at maximum production for the foreseeable future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, we hear more from John Steinbaugh, who answers the question:  If you could invent something new, what would it be? The inventor said would make special goggles that could check vital signs. You can watch that video on our Rundown.