Research for the military work environment

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has highly-specialized needs due to the unique operating environments and dangerous work demanded by their missions. Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) concentrates its research to enhance CAF safety and protection on the battlefield by specializing in minimizing the risk of contracting deadly disease and chemical/biological warfare attacks. DRDC is also focused on another serious combat-related occupational issue of hearing loss and hearing disruptions.

About medical countermeasures and disease prevention research

Few treatments and prevention options exist for most chemical/biological warfare agents and the same is true for many of the infectious diseases that are prevalent in the world’s developing countries. To protect the CAF from some of the world’s most serious illnesses and threats, researchers at DRDC are working to create protection, prevention and treatment medical countermeasures and infection detection methods. Research in this area is focused on developing drug therapies, identifying biomarkers of infection, detecting infection, and treating chemical and biological agent exposure.

Research for results

Medical countermeasures for biological threats:

DRDC is currently working on two new drug developments in collaboration with various partners. DEF201 is a promising anti-viral broad-spectrum drug and immune system booster where early trials have demonstrated it to be effective when delivered via nasal injector to animals exposed to 16 different deadly viruses including Ebola, Alphavirus (causing encephalitis), SARS, West Nile, Yellow Fever and the emerging Lassa virus. Next stage pre-clinical trials are underway to prove safety and efficacy for humans. Another promising medical countermeasure, also in early stages of development, is an anti-ricin antibody that to-date shows promise to be an effective prevention and treatment for Ricin poisoning, a toxin that currently has no approved protection, prevention and treatment options.

Host-response biomarkers of infection:

Defence scientists at DRDC are studying proteins and messenger RNA to determine if the body produces a pre-symptomatic biological response to infection. If a biomarker, a specific indicator within the body, can be identified the next step is to create a detector that can accompany military personnel in the field to give them a fighting chance by providing early detection of biological threats and infectious diseases.

Detection of infectious disease:

A piece of commercially available equipment for the identification of biological threats is currently being tested by DRDC to determine if it is able to meet the unique needs of the CAF. Capable of environmental and clinical sample identification, the FilmArray™ system is designed to analyze a sample in one hour to determine if a threat agent exists in the body or in environmental substances like powders or soils.

Protection against nerve agent exposure:

CAF personnel are currently equipped with a defence against nerve agent exposure treatment and protection that includes auto-injectors and decontaminating lotion to treat nerve agent exposure in the body and on the skin. These solutions were developed by DRDC. DRDC in collaboration with Canadian Forces Health Services are now developing an intravenous version of this nerve agent antidote capable of providing an extended treatment over a prolonged protection. This will provide the CAF a more comprehensive treatment if exposed to a large amount of the agent. DRDC scientists are also evaluating another solution for nerve agent exposure through the use of enzymes that absorb and degrade nerve agents known as bioscavengers. Working with the University of Guelph, DRDC will soon conduct trials to evaluate if human recombinant proteins and specific nerve agent antibodies can be grown in tobacco plants. If effective, the bioscavenger will be a superior treatment option because of its ability to prevent distribution of nerve agent to tissues and organs such as the brain.

Research into hearing loss and disruption

The objective of DRDC’s noise and communications research is to optimize the match between hearing protection and operational requirements. The noise environment within which the CAF operates is different than the civilian noise environment due to a combination of difficult to anticipate noises, high intensity sounds and the requirement to simultaneously attend to faint noise cues. Military members are constantly faced with multiple sounds and noise disruptions that all compete to be heard. These potential noise scenarios can include: being exposed to unanticipated impulse noises like gun fire, explosions, and heavy artillery; operating a radio for operational commands and team communication with multiple simultaneous conversation streams; and listening for a possible enemy approaching.

In addition to potential harm caused to military personnel, hearing loss represents significant operational and financial loss to the CAF because of the disruption it can cause to a mission and the support required by members who experience hearing loss. Ensuring hearing protective devices meet requirements of CAF personnel is critical to health, training and CAF operations.

Research for results

Noise characteristics of weapons systems:

As a first step to determining the amount of noise exposure experienced by CAF members during training and operations, DRDC researchers are working to quantify the amount of noise produced by different weapons systems. With much debate internationally about how to assess weapon noise exposure, DRDC is working with researchers in the United States and France to develop standard methods for measurement and analysis. This research will be used to create guidelines to improve hearing conservation on the battlefield.

Audio-visual aids:

Many CAF members have the problem of auditory overload – a number of jobs involve monitoring, transcribing, responding to and relaying strategic information delivered simultaneously over two or more audio networks or channels. A DRDC research project is exploring the use of audio-visual aids to help with the transmission of information. Preliminary results demonstrate that the addition of supplementary text aids in the understanding of audio speech. The results also show a right-ear advantage for most participants which indicates that higher priority items should be sent to the receivers’ dominant ear. Future experiments in this area will be completed using a wider variation of speech-to-noise ratios and a more diverse group of participants, including those with hearing impairment and those who use English as their second language.

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