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NEWS | Dec. 10, 2021

NAMRU-SA researchers working on portable sterilizer device for medical instruments

By David DeKunder 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Biomedical engineers from Naval Medical Research Unit San Antonio, located at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, are working on developing a portable device with the capability of sterilizing medical instruments on the battlefield or in austere environments which will help in the treatment and recovery of wounded warfighters.

The prototype portable ozone sterilizer would enable frontline military first responders, including combat medics, corpsmen, dentists and surgical personnel, to sterilize instruments needed for dentistry and surgery, utilizing a process that would sanitize the medical instruments in a matter of minutes.

Dr. Ashley Dacy, NAMRU-SA biomedical engineer, said the portable ozone sterilizer would be adaptable to all environments, including the front lines, remote and austere locations where the climate is either hot or cold, and could be carried by one first responder since it would weigh approximately 45 pounds.

Dacy said the device gives first responders or forward surgical teams the capability to perform treatment in a battle zone, remote or austere environment when medical evacuation or dental services are not readily available for service members. The portable ozone sterilizer would have the capability to sterilize both surgical and dental instruments.

“Any kind of first responder will be able to use it and the people who benefit from it would be injured warfighters,” Dacy said. “It can have potential benefits for mission readiness as well, sterilizing dental instruments and other medical devices quickly and easily in remote locations.”

Dacy said the portable ozone sterilizer could potentially save the lives of injured service members because it could effectively and quickly, possibly in as little as five minutes, sanitize medical instruments from bacteria, viruses and pathogens, helping to reduce the occurrence of secondary infections and possibly preventing the deaths of wounded warfighters.

Currently, Dacy said, the military uses an autoclave, a device that uses heat and pressure to produce steam for sterilizing medical instruments. She said these devices, which can weigh more than 300 pounds, are best suited for higher roles of care and military treatment facilities because they are so difficult to transport.

Fitted in a case, the ozone sterilizer contains every component needed to sterilize medical instruments, including a humidification chamber, a sterilization chamber and a user interface that presents ozone concentration, pressure, temperature and the remaining sterilization time to the operator.

The portable device uses concentrated oxygen to produce ozone, which is humidified and passed into the sterilization chamber where the instruments are placed, Dacy said. The process can also include the addition of water and hydrogen peroxide, which can speed up and help improve the sterilization of medical instruments.

“Ozone sterilization works by breaking down cell walls of bacteria and destroying the protective envelope of viruses like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and it can work very quickly, especially if you add something like hydrogen peroxide to produce more reactive chemicals,” Dacy said.

Dr. William D’Angelo, NAMRU-SA biomedical engineer, said the portable ozone sterilizer would be useful for prolonged care situations in a battle zone, in which injured warfighters would need to be treated for a longer period of time in the field beyond the “golden hour,” which is the critical period of time in which casualties are treated on the field before being moved on to the next higher level of care.

“We are planning in future conflicts that we won’t have that luxury (of the ‘golden hour’) because we won’t have air superiority, we won’t own the skies,” D’Angelo said. “For prolonged care situations, you would need an ability to re-sterilize your instruments, if you are not able to get resupplied, in order to keep that capability of doing surgeries.”

Research on the portable ozone sterilizer started at NAMRU-SA in 2013. So far, researchers have tested dental instruments in the device and plan to test how effective it is sterilizing surgical instruments next.

Dr. Sylvain Cardin, NAMRU-SA chief science director, said the project to develop the device is in the pre-clinical trial phase, with more research being conducted to determine how effectively it can kill bacteria and pathogens within the sterilization process.

NAMRU-SA researchers are working to ensure the prototype ozone sterilizer meets guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which must approve the device before it goes out on the market. Cardin said he is hoping that process will be completed within five years.

While the portable ozone sterilizer is being developed for the military right now, the goal is also to have the device available for civilian use in emergencies such as mass casualty events, Cardin said.

“If you are in a remote area where a mass casualty event may occur, this device could be used by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and some first responders,” Cardin said. “The ultimate goal of our research and development is to save lives, and that’s very important.”