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The Canadian Military Wants to Use Stem Cells to Help Its Soldiers Heal

The US army's research into turning stem cells into a useful in-theatre tool dates back over five years, and now Canada's top military researchers are following suit.
Photo by Robert J. Galbraith/STR

It has experimented with Arctic drones, designed the next generation of smart rifles and developed secure wifi networks for combat platoons. Now, the Canadian Armed Forces is looking to develop a battlefield-ready adult stem cell program to help its soldiers quickly heal devastating wounds.

Scientists at Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC) are developing a project that aims to create potential tools for rapid healing and protection against chemical warfare agents.


American military researchers have already been working on turning stem cells into a useful in-theatre tool for more than five years. Last month, the scientific research wing of Canada's Department of National Defense posted a contract to a government tendering website asking for private sector partners ready to create a healing tool for Canadian soldiers using the controversial science.

"Adult stem cells are therapeutic tools with promise in accelerating healing and tissue regeneration," said a government release on the contract website asking for private bidders to support the project.

According to DRDC, mesenchymal cells can be engineered to "produce therapeutic molecules" that will hopefully help "address capability gaps in medical countermeasures (MCMs) available to the Canadian Armed Forces" once those quick acting properties are turned into a medical use.

The Canadian government is clear the stem cells used for research are non-embryonic and sourced entirely from umbilical cord tissue — not embryonic, which are the more contentious stem cells frequently cited as problematic by anti-abortion groups.

The project, while in the preliminary stages, has already secured "regulatory approval for [adult stem cell]-derived therapeutic products."

"Our aim is to develop mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) to address capability gaps in medical countermeasures (MCMs) available to the Canadian Armed Forces," reads the DRDC release.


Kathleen Guillot, a spokesperson for DRDC, told VICE News that scientists are primarily seeking to find "new treatment approaches that could be used to treat injured Canadian Armed Forces members" using the cells.

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The government has since awarded the contract to Aurora BioSolutions based in Alberta, in a deal worth nearly $400,000. The Alberta based scientific research company has a history of research and development with Canada's military scientists.

Canada will have some catch-up to do, as the American Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine has been around since 2008. It began as an organization looking at futuristic medicine for veterans — including face transplants. That institute, working with private stem cell clinics, is looking into how the medicine can be used to avoid amputation of limbs after an explosion.

Dr. William Murphy, co-director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told VICE News that regenerative technologies capable of healing battlefield injuries are already undergoing clinical trials.

Some of the most promising use adult stem cells derived from fat tissue to treat flesh wounds, while others grow skin outside the body to avoid the need for skin grafts. One big advantage is that stem cell technologies minimize the formation of scar tissue that can inhibit function.


Now, cutting edge research is focused on using stem cells to reconstruct skin, muscle, tendons and even bone that's been blown away.

"In multi trauma incidents, maybe due to a blast, you might have to generate multiple tissue types," he said. "There are adult stem cell types that are capable of forming multiple types in that kind of a large defect."

But Murphy is clear that stem cells aren't going to create super soldiers able to repair themselves on the battlefield and keep fighting the enemy. Proper regeneration requires time, and can only take place in a medical setting.

"Tissues take time to heal property," he said. "If they're stimulated to heal over a very short time frame they might not be able to recreate the intended function."

Follow Ben Makuch and Justin Ling on Twitter: @BMakuch  @justin_ling

Arthur White contributed reporting to this article.