FEATURE—Fall 2007
   

 
Retired Colonel William Wiesmann, M.D. ’72

Moved to Save Lives

Retired Colonel William Wiesmann, M.D. ’72, is the inventor of medical devices, such as the HemCon® bandage, that help people survive trauma, from the battlefield to the highway to the hospital.

By Lisa Cary

Today’s media is filled with daily coverage of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as somber commemorations of U.S. soldiers who have been killed in the conflict. What viewers do not usually see are encouraging statistics showing a dramatic decrease in troop deaths due in part to the recent use of a revolutionary new bandage developed by William P. Wiesmann, M.D. ’72, and colleagues.

Wiesmann’s focus on battlefield survival began during his 20-year career in medical research for the U.S. Army and has continued since his return to civilian life in 1997. His HemCon® (short for “hemorrhage control”) bandage has saved lives in at least 120 documented cases in Iraq and Afghanistan since its introduction in 2002, and it represents one of the more significant advances in battlefield medicine since the Civil War. Uncontrolled bleeding is the leading preventable cause of death in combat; about 50 percent of battlefield deaths are due to traumatic hemorrhage.

“As an Army medical researcher, I had research money and no boundaries or barriers as to what I studied. My orders were simply to find ways to save lives,” says Wiesmann. “In the 1990s, following troop deaths in Kuwait and Somalia, we cast a wide net trying to find substances with blood-clotting properties. We found the answer in an old Chinese book that mentioned using shrimp shells as a natural way to stop bleeding.”

Working with a colleague from the Oregon Medical Laser Center in Portland, Oregon, in 2002, Wiesmann discovered that the shrimp shell’s natural clotting substance, chitin, could be chemically processed into chitosan, a molecule with amazing biological properties. “The positively charged chitosan molecules in the bandage act as a magnet to negatively charged red blood cells,” Wiesmann explains. “When applied, it actually bonds to a wound and stops even severe bleeding within two minutes.”

“The positively charged chitosan molecules in the bandage act as a magnet to negatively charged red blood cells,” Wiesmann explains. “When applied, it actually bonds to a wound and stops even severe bleeding within two minutes.”

Further, he explains, “Chitosan inhibits the growth of bacteria by binding the organism’s outer membranes so that it cannot reproduce, thus protecting the wound from infection.” Perhaps most significantly, chitosan kills bacteria that have become antibiotic-resistant, including the bacteria that commonly cause staph infections and pneumonia.

Following the successful field testing of alumnus William Wiesmann’s HemCon bandage, the Army gave millions of additional dollars to help speed production and make available the bandages to every U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2004, the U.S. military named it one of the year’s “Top 10 Greatest Inventions.”

Wiesmann’s work on the HemCon bandage, completed after his retirement from the military, was financially supported by the Army. Following successful field testing and the second-fastest FDA product approval on record, the Army gave millions of additional dollars to help speed up production and make available the 4-inch-by-4-inch bandage to every U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2004, the U.S. military named it one of the year’s “Top 10 Greatest Inventions.”

While the HemCon bandage has garnered him the greatest media attention, Wiesmann’s aim to save lives didn’t stop there. He currently holds patents, awarded or pending, on more than 20 medical devices designed to improve survival of trauma victims in both military and civilian settings.

His curiosity and flair for problem-solving dates back to his days as a graduate student at Washington University. After earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, he arrived in St. Louis with his wife, Sandy, in 1968. “Washington University was my dream school,” he says, “because of its excellent reputation for teaching students how to conduct research.”

A fellowship in the Department of Nephrology at the University’s School of Medicine was followed by a move to Washington, D.C., where he completed advanced research training as a fellow at the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Along with the position came status as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service—just a quick signature away from being a member of the armed services. “Joining the Army was the farthest thing from my mind,” he laughs, “but it paid $200 more per month, and they promised I wouldn’t have to wear a uniform, so I joined in 1978.”

Wiesmann distinguished himself as a medical researcher for the military, ultimately becoming a senior scientist at the Walter Reed Institute of Research and the director for combat casualty care at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Ft. Detrick, Maryland. He also worked with NASA, studying the effect of microgravity on the human immune system.

Wiesmann currently holds patents, awarded or pending, on more than 20 medical devices designed to improve trauma victims’ chances of survival in both military and civilian settings.

In 1993, Wiesmann officially stepped into the role of inventor when he applied for his first patent on behalf of the Army. Four years later, following retirement as a full colonel, Wiesmann founded a series of biotechnology companies, collectively called the BioSTAR Group, that are the vehicles through which Wiesmann collaborates with colleagues on the research and development of a wide array of new biomedical devices and techniques. Private and government sources have invested millions of dollars to help fund the results emanating from these companies. The companies include the following: Sekos Inc., developing advanced medical devices and monitoring equipment; Tissue Genesis Inc., advancing cell therapy and delivery; BioSTAR Inc., providing biomedical consulting and program management; Hawaii Chitopure Inc., producing chitosan; and HemCon Medical Technologies Inc., developing further applications for chitosan-based hemorrhage control. A nonprofit organization, The Hugh & Carolyn Shelton Military Neurotrauma Foundation for improving the outcomes of combat-related neurotrauma injuries, is also part of the fold.

Many of the medical devices developed by Wiesmann for the battlefield are now finding favor in civilian settings because their design qualities include portability, simplicity of operation, and affordability. Firefighters, paramedics, dental surgeons, and hospital emergency rooms now use the HemCon bandage and its variations. The antibacterial properties of the chitosan molecule are being studied as a solution to drug-resistant infections in humans and animals. Also, an effective but inexpensive micromechanical ventilator Wiesmann patented in 2006 is now being considered as an addition to the country’s Homeland Security stockpiles for first responders.

In his “spare” time, Wiesmann chairs the scientific advisory board of the National Tissue Engineering Center, and he is a member of the University of Southern California Engineering School board of councilors, the University of Cincinnati Department of Biomedical Engineering external advisory board, and the board of trustees at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He has been published in more than 70 scientific publications and authored several book chapters.

The activity Wiesmann finds most rewarding is mentoring research students and encouraging them to gain a broad base of knowledge in their studies. Regarding his own accomplishments, Wiesmann modestly opines: “I’m not going to be a Nobel Prize winner or a professor of medicine, but I know how to seize an idea, develop it into a product, take it through due diligence and regulatory approval, then establish a company to get it manufactured so that it can help people. I’m proud to have gone the full circle.”

Lisa Cary is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.