With the passage of 2018, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research marks another year of protecting the nation’s top weapons system – the U.S. Soldier.
Throughout the history of armed conflict, non-battle injuries have typically constituted the largest source of casualties. This trend has continued into the 21st century during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom where battle wounds caused less than 20% of evacuations from theater while disease caused approximately 50%.
With approximately 2000 Soldiers, federal civilians and contractors across four continents and over two dozen countries, WRAIR provides Soldiers the best medical protection and support possible before, during and after their deployment.
WRAIR was founded as the Army Medical School in 1893 as one of the first public health institutions in the United States.
Originally established to train medical doctors fluent in the needs and system of the Army, the AMS was eventually reorganized to serve fully as a research institution, taking the name WRAIR in 1953. Though its modern mission is to address infectious disease and brain health threats, it has historically addressed whatever endangered the health of Soldiers.
To celebrate this 125 year legacy, WRAIR held two research symposia at its Silver Spring, Md., headquarters, each focusing on a major line of research, and one research symposium at its newest overseas activity, the U.S. Army Medical Research Directorate – Georgia in Tbilisi, Georgia.
These events served to highlight our world-changing accomplishments, engage senior leaders and partners in the United States and around the world, fortify our many research collaborations and demonstrate our capabilities moving forward.
Readiness and Lethality
American Soldiers must be prepared to enter any environment at a moment’s notice. In order to do so–safely and effectively–they need to be protected from endemic medical threats and provided the best training possible to maintain unit readiness and lethality.
WRAIR’s scientists operate around the world to track the incidence, spread and evolution of infectious diseases. These data are used to inform unit commanders of the most pressing threats as well as focus development efforts at WRAIR and other institutions.
With our partners, WRAIR advanced and refined countermeasures against viral and bacterial disease threats, including multidrug resistant organisms, malaria, Zika and traveler’s diarrhea.
For more advanced products, WRAIR ran multiple clinical trials around the world, including for vaccines against dengue and malaria (including the largest controlled human malaria infection trial in history) while publishing the results of a clinical trial studying the WRAIR-developed Zika vaccine.
Notably, WRAIR celebrated the licensure of tafenoquine, the first malaria chemoprophylaxis pill in 18 years. The discovery, development and early clinical trials for tafenoquine were conducted at WRAIR.
WRAIR also serves as a resource for military medical treatment facilities, supporting the response to infectious disease and multidrug resistant organism outbreaks in MTFs around the world by characterizing pathogens, providing treatment options and developing new infection control practices.
To remain ready and lethal, Soldiers must be adequately prepared to face the stress of combat, operate effectively in challenging environments and be protected from the physiological consequences of combat. For that reason, WRAIR operates a brain health research program.
In light of the relationship between sleep and performance, decision making and learning, WRAIR scientists collected data from thousands of Service Members around the world to learn more about current sleep habits in the military and develop recommendations for Commanders to utilize sleep as a resource in mission planning and risk mitigation.
Another major area of research is blast. From data collected, WRAIR scientists updated recommendations for minimum safe distances from blast exposure events and developed new models to study blast, and its many consequences including hearing loss, traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases.
WRAIR scientists also worked to develop, improve and refine training programs for Soldiers. Some particularly impactful programs include iCOVER, a system of peer management of acute stress reactions during combat-related events as well as behavioral health assessments and resilience and performance enhancement trainings for Soldiers deploying into combat zones. These, and many other ongoing efforts, are part of WRAIR’s research to prepare Soldiers for deployment and combat while decreasing the incidence of mental health concerns by improving access and quality of care around then.
As WRAIR’s scientists are often at the top of their field, they frequently advise senior leaders within the U.S. government and DOD on health policy matters. Members of WRAIR are proud to have contributed to policy discussions around the health standards of those joining, staying and departing from the military and have multiple Soldier-scientists serving as subject matter experts to the Surgeon General of the United States Army.
People, Partnerships and Outreach
Over the summer, WRAIR welcomed a new Commander, Colonel Deydre Teyhen, and senior enlisted Soldier, Command Sergeant Major Natasha Santiago. They were joined by dozens of incoming Soldiers and civilian hires as WRAIR grows to meet its mission.
To constantly improve the new and existing workforce, new initiatives were implemented, including programs to improve Soldier medical readiness, scientific and technical capacity and workforce cohesion and synergy.
Augmenting our workforce is an expansive network of partners in the United States and around the world. In addition to welcoming new collaborations in government, academia and industry, WRAIR is proud to expand its reach to the Middle East with a partnership in Jordan.
In addition to the vast body of research and products, WRAIR supports the military’s mission in other ways.
WRAIR is proud to leverage its extraordinary capacity for scientific research for science education and professional development. Approximately 750 students, ranging from middle school through college, participated in summer programs and approximately 100 collegiate, post-baccalaureate and post-graduate students participated in year-round fellowships.
These programs are an investment in the future of the United States, as a diverse, capable and STEM-literate population is vital to the future of the Army, Department of Defense and Nation.
Institutional Reorganization and Renovation
In order to remain a modern institution on the cutting edge of scientific research, WRAIR has engaged in several efforts to renovate and reorganize itself.
Formalizing the research group created to rapidly respond to the Zika virus, a new research branch, the Emerging Infectious Disease branch, was created to formalize WRAIR’s capability to address novel infectious disease threats.
Additionally, a new center of excellence, the Center for Enabling Capabilities, was established in 2018 to unite and streamline capabilities that allow WRAIR to rapidly innovate medical products, including our resource library, preclinical and clinical trial infrastructure and pilot-scale manufacturing facility.
Other new groups, such as the Research Programs Office and Research Transition Office, streamlined WRAIR’s ability to work closely with our partners and operationalize new techniques and therapeutics.
WRAIR also continued a large scale renovation of its reference library, manufacturing facility and vivarium to ensure the availability of safe and modern resources.
Looking to the Future
WRAIR’s capabilities and skillset allow it to perform full spectrum biomedical research, from detection to countermeasure discovery and development to clinical trials and small scale manufacturing.
This work is not performed for the sake of science alone. Though proud of the humanitarian impact of its research, scientists and staff at WRAIR know that their primary mission is to protect Soldiers and ensure a healthy, lethal Army.
As 2019 progresses, WRAIR will continue to innovate better and safer products to fulfill that mission.