DARPA is well known for its ‘out there’ ideas that push the boundaries of existing science and tech. Its latest program is no exception. Inspired by some of nature’s hardiest creatures, it plans to develop a technique of “slowing biological time” to give soldiers wounded on the battlefield more time to wait for medical attention.
Yes, like most things DARPA does, it sounds like something out of a video game or sci-fi movie. But it’s not quite as mad as it sounds, and you can’t argue with the reasoning behind it.
“When a Service member suffers a traumatic injury or acute infection, the time from event to first medical treatment is usually the single most significant factor in determining the outcome between saving a life or not,” the agency said in a statement announcing the program.
Describing that initial window as the “Golden Hour”, DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, tasked with developing new technologies for the military – has looked towards nature to buy that crucial time. Its plan: to “slow life to save life”.
"Our goal with Biostasis is to control those molecular machines [that transform chemical and kinetic energy into biological processes] and get them to all slow their roll at about the same rate so that we can slow down the entire system gracefully and avoid adverse consequences when the intervention is reversed or wears off,” explained Biostasis program manager Tristan McClure-Begley.
Despite sounding suspiciously like cryonics, the Biostasis program is actually inspired by processes that already occur in nature.
Some organisms can use proteins to control and slow down cellular functions in extreme conditions. Tardigrades, for example, are famous for their ability to induce a state of cryptobiosis to survive freezing conditions, heat, dehydration, and even radiation. Wood frogs do it too, surviving being frozen solid for days on end despite all indications that metabolic processes have stopped and they are, for all intents and purposes, dead.
“Nature is a source of inspiration,” said McClure-Begley. “If we can figure out the best ways to bolster other biological systems and make them less likely to enter a runaway downward spiral after being damaged, then we will have made a significant addition to the biology toolbox.”
However, despite their lofty ambitions, actually preserving bodies on the battlefield akin to perhaps the brain-protecting Alpha-Gel from Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a long way off.
The Biostasis program is currently seeking proof-of-concept ways to slow down the body's biochemical process, the biggest hurdle being ensuring no permanent damage to the cells when the process is reversed. Similar techniques could also be applied to exploring extending the shelf-life of blood products and drugs to reduce the reaction times – all critical in that initial golden hour, which DARPA readily admits is often much less than 60 minutes.