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Arming soldiers with nutrition

Scientists in the Department of Defense (DoD) Combat Feeding Program are working to ensure that the soldier of the future has plenty of nourishment within arm’s length.

Although the product is still planted in the conceptual phase, scientists are working on a nutritional patch called the Transdermal Nutrient Delivery System (TDNDS) that would be used by warfighters under extreme circumstances.

The system would conceivably expand on the osmotic technology of the nicotine patch that is worn on the arm. However, instead of transmitting nicotine, this patch will transmit vitamins and nutrients needed by the human body. The patch would be used to keep the warfighter at optimum performance for a day or two, until he or she has access to a real meal and the time to eat it.

Gerald Darsch is the joint project director for the DoD Combat Feeding Program, which is part of the Natick Soldier Center at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (Natick).

"TDNDS would be used during periods of high-intensity conflict,” Darsch said. “It is not intended to ever replace a turkey dinner with all the fixings."

Darsch explained that the patch’s ingredients could also include nutraceuticals, which are food components with a pharmaceutical action above and beyond normal nutrition. These chemicals could tell a hungry soldier’s brain that his stomach is full or reduce combat-related stress, such as muscle fatigue and physical problems associated with prolonged cold weather exposure and high altitude. In the future, the patch could possibly transmit nutrients in one of several ways.

According to Darsch, a microchip processor would interact with sensors to determine a warfighter’s metabolic requirements. The processor would then activate a microelectrical mechanical system to transmit the micronutrients.

Nutrients would be transported via skin pores that have been opened by electrical impulses, or through microdialysis, which would pump nutrients directly into blood capillaries.

Another potential vehicle for transport could involve controlled release of encapsulated nutrients through the skin.

Dr. C. Patrick Dunne of the DoD Combat Feeding Program, said that the patch has civilian, as well as military, applications. In the future, the patch could be used by workers in a variety of stressful, hazardous work environments.

For example, the patch could potentially be used by miners, oil rig workers, firefighters, chemical production or cleanup workers, as well as by astronauts involved in space walks or space station repair.

However, Darsch pointed out that TDNDS is still an early concept.

Will the TDNDS be achievable as we envision it today? Maybe not. Are we investing heavily in it today? Absolutely not," he said. "Nevertheless, it has been said the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Natick has already received calls from several world-class companies to begin to explore a partnership to determine the feasibility of this concept."

Pending significant technological breakthroughs, Darsch estimated that the system could be available to military personnel around the year 2025.

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