The U.S. military’s miracle scanner

March 29, 2013, 9:00 AM UTC

FORTUNE — After years of testing, the U.S. Military is ready to implement a handheld device that detects brain bleeding immediately after a traumatic event, such as a vehicle accident or explosion. The Infrascanner 2000 uses infrared light to determine if a person has a brain hematoma or bleeding. Infrared light penetrates up to three centimeters into the head and detects the optical density, which is different for hematomas compared to a healthy brain. It gives a positive or negative reading in about two minutes.

Prompt medical care after a traumatic injury can be the difference between life and death — what’s known as the “golden hour.” That hour is even more precarious for soldiers injured in combat who may be far from a hospital. With the Infrascanner, combat medics can assess patients to see who needs urgent medical attention, possibly saving lives and resources. “We had no way of screening for a head injury in theater,” says Dr. Michael Given, the program manager for expeditionary medicine, combat casualty care for the Office of Naval Research. “It [the Infrascanner] fills a gap.”

With a blast, he says, it’s expected there will be some head injuries. Corpsmen and medics with the battalion can really only monitor the patient. “The Infrascanner takes a lot of the guesswork out,” Given adds.

Currently, the protocol for treating soldiers after a traumatic event is to send them all to a nearby hospital for CT scans, evaluation by doctors, and surgery if necessary; but this could result in someone with severe brain injuries not being treated in time to prevent damage or death. Providing all battalions with an Infrascanner 2000 would not necessarily result in fewer people going to the hospital after a traumatic event, but would allow combat medics to better assess the severity and urgency of each person before reaching the hospital, so the most gravely injured could be treated first. Medics could determine who would need to be life-flighted and who could be transported by vehicle.

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“Time lost is brain lost,” says InfraScan CEO Dr. Baruch Ben Dor. “With brain bleeding, the time between injury and surgery is critical. The Infrascanner allows patients to be assessed and get to a definitive diagnosis faster than is available today. If you treat someone within the golden hour, the chances for survival are much better.”

The first generation of the device, the Infrascanner 1000, was field-tested by the U.S. Marines in Iraq in 2008. The 1000 model was a two-part device, one part being the PDA and the other was the scanner. In 2008, the project transitioned from being funded by the Office of Naval Research to Marine Corp System Command, and a ruggedized version was developed, which is the 2000. The 2000 model was tested in Afghanistan from 2011-2012. It is now a one-piece device that works on disposable AA batteries, which soldiers usually carry with them, and is about the size of an old-school cellphone. It can withstand vibrations, rain, dust, and being dropped. The field-studies conducted by Marines proved it to be a useful tool for the military.

In Iraq, more than 100 Marines and sailors were evaluated with the device. Three positive readings for brain-bleeding prompted expedited air evacuation and were later confirmed with a CT scan. In one instance, an Afghan boy was wounded in a suicide IED blast and was taken to the Marines corpsman for evaluation. The Infrascanner reading showed the boy had brain hemorrhaging, so he was transferred to a hospital for a CT scan (which proved the Infrascanner correct) where he underwent emergency surgery and survived. A Marine battalion was also able to save more than 20 helicopter flights. Instead of scrambling for a helicopter, soldiers who tested negative for a TBI were transported by vehicle to a hospital.

The Infrascanner 2000 will also lower the number of soldiers getting CT scans. Dr. Joseph C. Maroon, MD, professor and vice chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh and Medical Advisory Board member of civilian Infrascanner distributor, MedLogic, LLC., says CT scans produce 400 times the amount of radiation as a chest X-ray. Too much radiation can be harmful; however, infrared light is relatively harmless, he says.

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Unlike surface injuries, traumatic brain injury, or TBI, can go undetected. Patients can seem completely healthy but can die hours later. This is called “Walk and Die Syndrome.” According to the U.S. Navy Casualty Care Statistics, 30% of all wounded in action have head injuries, of which 40% had brain hematomas. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, in cooperation with the Department of Defense, reports that the number of TBIs sustained by service members since 2000 is 266,810.

The Infrascanner was first developed in the 1990s by Dr. Britton Chance at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Claudia Robertson at Baylor College of Medicine. Later, in 2004 with a grant from the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) through the Office of Naval Research, and later the U.S. Navy Marines, the company was able to launch the product and conduct clinical studies for FDA clearance at regular hospitals. The Infrascanner 2000 was FDA approved in January 2013. The Philadelphia-based company is called InfraScan and the device it makes is called the Infrascanner.

The Infrascanner was also evaluated by foreign militaries including the German Army, Spanish Military, Russia High Military Academy, Israeli Navy Seals, and Saudi National Guard. Currently, ADS Medical, the military distributor for InfraScan, is in contract negotiations with the U.S. Marine Corps to place 250 Infrascanners in the field. Each unit costs $18,000 for the military. The goal is to get one in every battalion aid station, which serves about 1,200 soldiers.

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