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Medical Devices to Reduce Military Travel Disorders

75th Ranger Battalion

The 75th Ranger Battalion prepares to deploy from Fort Benning, Georgia. (

14 May 2021. Biomedical engineers at university labs are designing medical devices that reduce jet lag and intestinal problems faced by military service members. The devices are being developed under the ADvanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness, or Adapter program of DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of Department of Defense.

Adapter aims to make it easier for military service members to adjust to new environments when deployed quickly to distant regions. “The Adapter technology will alleviate operational limitations imposed by human physiology for two high priority military needs: sleep and safe sustenance,” says Paul Sheehan, Adapter program manager in a DARPA statement. DARPA expects the initiative to develop implanted devices and swallowed capsules that can sense physiological changes in a service member and dispense therapeutic molecules to help the individual adjust to new time zones and disrupted sleep or reduce intestinal distress from food borne pathogens.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois are leading design and development of the time-zone adjustment device. That device is envisioned as an implanted lab-on-a-chip system activated by light and dispensing synthesized peptides that the body produces to regulate sleep cycles. The device also responds to the wearer’s body chemistry to deliver the appropriate peptide dose.

“This control system allows us to deliver a peptide of interest on demand, directly into the blood stream,” says project principal investigator and biomedical engineering professor Jonathan Rivnay in a Northwestern statement. “No need to carry drugs, no need to inject therapeutics and, depending on how long we can make the device last, no need to refill the device. It’s like an implantable pharmacy on a chip that never runs out.”

Creating engineered cells to produce synthetic peptides

The Northwestern team includes specialists from the university’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology that studies mechanisms underlying sleep and circadian rhythms and their health impacts. Researchers at Rice University in Houston are designing the wireless implant housing the chip system and creating engineered cells that produce synthetic therapeutic peptides, work led respectively by biomedical engineering professors Jacob Robinson and Omid Veiseh.

“Sleep control is something we can track while we develop this implant,” says Veiseh in a Rice statement, “but the real innovation here is being able to produce drugs inside the patient,” and adding, “If we can bring all of that manufacturing right into the patient and produce high-quality compounds on an as-needed basis, the possibilities are infinite.”

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and neuroscience technology company Blackrock Microsystems in Salt Lake City, Utah are also taking part in design and development of the time-zone device. That project could bring the researchers as much as $33 million over 4.5 years, if all aspects of the work are completed.

The overall Adapter initiative has two other parts. A team from Stanford University in California is developing an implantable device to combat fatigue, dispensing the hormone melatonin that regulates sleep cycles, on demand for up to 30 days. And researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing a capsule that service members can swallow, which travels to the gut and releases compounds to kill food borne pathogens and neutralize their toxins. Science & Enterprise reported in February 2019 on a similar capsule developed at MIT that releases a tiny needle delivering an insulin dose to the stomach lining, equivalent to conventional insulin injections.

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