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NAMRU-SA scientist selected for top Navy science award

By David DeKunder | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | June 12, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —

Work on biomedical projects, from developing an antivenom to dental research, has earned a Naval Medical Research Unit San Antonio researcher an award for being one of the top scientists in the Navy.

Dr. Yoon Hwang, NAMRU-SA Maxillofacial Injury and Disease Department research scientist, is a recipient of the Dr. Delores M. Etter Top Scientists and Engineers of the Year Award. The annual award is given by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development and Acquisition) to top-performing scientists and engineers in the Department of Navy who have made significant contributions in their fields.

This year, a total of 54 scientists and engineers were selected for the award. Hwang was one of three scientists named in the individual category for the award.

“It is my honor to receive this award,” Hwang said. “I feel very humbled.”

Hwang was nominated for the Dr. Delores M. Etter Award by NAMRU-SA leaders, including Capt. Andrew Vaughn, NAMRU-SA commanding officer, and Capt. Michele Kane, NAMRU-SA executive officer.

His nomination was based on his work on three research projects that impact warfighters: the testing of dental and medical supplies in simulated harsh conditions encountered by units in deployed locations, the development of antivenom and the development of therapeutic biomedical applications in preventing the progression of dental disease.

Dr. John Simecek, NAMRU-SA director of craniofacial health and restorative medicine, said Hwang oversees multiple research projects because of his vast knowledge on different aspects of science, especially those issues that affect the warfighter.

“In our research environment, many things come up on short notice,” Simecek said. “One of the things that Dr. Hwang and his group are very, very adapt to is they are able to get a grasp on it quickly.”

Utilizing an environmental chamber at NAMRU-SA, Hwang and his team of researchers run tests on multiple medicines and dental restorative products that are used to treat Sailors, Marines and service members deployed in remote locations. The environmental chamber provides simulations of harsh conditions, including extreme temperature and humidity scenarios, that could be found in these locations around the world.

Hwang said the tests determine whether a medicine or dental restorative product can withstand and be used under extreme conditions in remote environments.

“These efforts ensure the Sailors that the products being used in the field are of similar durability and performance in the harsh environment as in ordinary conditions,” Hwang said.

Since venomous animals, including snakes, jellyfishes, scorpions and spiders, exist on six of seven continents, there is a good chance a servicemember or warfighter will encounter one of these animals while deployed. Hwang is conducting research on developing both diagnostic and treatment applications for antivenom that could ultimately be used on warfighters who are bitten by a venomous animal in the field or in the sea.

The research Hwang is conducting is leading to the development of a handheld diagnostic device that could detect the type and amount of envenomation in the body by venomous animals. The device would utilize a microorganism known as a bacteriophage, or “phage,” a virus that infects bacteria.

Through his research, Hwang has shown that the phage could be used to identify the origin of the venom in the bite, including the type of snake or animal it may be from. He said the diagnostic device could determine if a physician needs to inject antivenom or not into the body.

In addition, Hwang is developing a therapeutic phage therapy, which he has patented, that could be used to treat snakebite by having the phage target and stick to venom components, neutralizing the toxicity of the target snake venom proteins and components and clearing the venom components out of the body.

Hwang said there is a need for warfighters to have the capabilities to detect envenomation and treat bites from venomous animals because they are deployed in remote areas where medical facilities are typically 12 to 24 hours away.

“This line of research may prove bountiful as the area of future potential conflicts looms in snake-thriving lands,” Hwang said. “This research will help greatly for our deployments in those areas.”

Hwang’s dental research into utilizing phages has determined that the microorganisms that cause cavities in the teeth could be practical therapeutic targets. This would allow for a phage therapy to be used once the bacteria are identified, with the phages reducing the bacteria’s affinity for sucrose and ultimately reducing the potential for cavities.

If it’s successful, the phage therapy treatment would decrease a service member’s chances of having cavities and limit the need to transport the warfighter out of a battlefield zone because of dental pain.

“NAMRU-San Antonio is extremely proud of Dr. Hwang,” said Dr. Sylvain Cardin, NAMRU-SA chief science director. “He is a great member of NAMRU-San Antonio and he really supports the mission.”

Hwang thanked his research staff at NAMRU-SA, including April Ford, Dr. David Lemon, Dr. Steven Moffett, Dr. Holly May and Eun Huh, for their hard work, creativity and ideas on the research projects that led to him receiving the Dr. Delores M. Etter Award.

Located at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in the Battlefield Health and Trauma Research Institute, NAMRU-SA is one of the leading research and development laboratories for the U.S. Navy under the Department of Defense and is one of eight subordinate research commands in the global network of laboratories operating under the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.