Research centre to combat devastating effects of roadside bombs at Imperial College London

Gaining a better understanding of the injuries caused by roadside bombs and improving both treatment and the means of protection are key aims of a new £8 million research centre launched today. Designing 'intelligent' combat boots to deflect the impact of a roadside bomb and diagnosing damage more quickly in the injured to reduce future medical problems are two potential benefits.

The Royal British Legion Centre for Blast Injury Studies at Imperial College London is the first collaboration of its kind in the UK, where civilian engineers and scientists will work alongside military doctors, supported by charitable funding, to reduce the effects of roadside bombs or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) - the leading cause of death and injury for Service personnel on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The goals of the new Centre are to increase understanding about blast injury patterns, improve treatments and recovery and develop better ways of protecting those serving in current and future conflicts - thus reducing the long-term impacts of such injuries on individuals, their families and the community.

The Royal British Legion is providing £5 million to establish the Centre. Imperial College London will lead on the scientific research, which builds on the work already carried out by the Imperial Blast research group at the College.

Admiral the Lord Boyce, the former Chief of the Defence Staff who also conducted a review into the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, which resulted in significant improvements to the scheme, is to chair the Centre's Advisory Board.

The Legion will also participate in the strategic direction of the Centre. The Centre's work will complement the Legion's existing range of support for wounded, injured and sick serving men and women of current conflicts, as well as for ex-serving personnel and their families.

Chris Simpkins, Director General, The Royal British Legion, explained the charity's involvement: "The Centre for Blast Injury Studies aims to improve treatment and recovery for those injured serving their country, as well as to reduce the number and extent of blast injuries in the first place. Enhancing the quality of life for the injured, potentially reducing their long-term disability and dependency, while protecting our Service men and women better in the future, is of major importance.

"It chimes perfectly with the support the Legion gives to the whole serving community and we are therefore very proud to be supporting Imperial's pioneering and world-class work in this field. We are making a long-term investment in the welfare of all who serve."

Professor Anthony Bull, from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London and Director of the new Centre, adds: "Previously, Servicemen and women who were wounded from blasts would have died from their injuries, and now military protection, medical science and practice has improved greatly so that there is a greater prospect of survival. We now need to assess the effects of blasts on these survivors. We urgently need to know more, so that we can protect and treat people more effectively. This Centre can make a real difference to the survival and quality of life of those serving in conflicts."

Surgeon Vice-Admiral Philip Raffaelli, Surgeon General at the Ministry of Defence, concludes: "I am delighted to support this initiative, which will enable the Imperial Blast group to continue its valuable work, complementing and enhancing existing research being undertaken by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the Defence Medical Services. MOD has supported the work of the Imperial Blast group since 2009, but this new centre will enable it to focus on new and innovative areas of blast research. Military clinicians will contribute their unique knowledge and experiences of combat injuries, enabling the research to focus on areas of most value to military personnel."

The researchers at the Centre will experiment with different materials to protect people better and new methods to deflect blast impact and change the pattern and severity of injuries. For example, researchers aim to work on an intelligent combat boot that is insulated with putty to absorb and then deflect the impact of an anti-vehicle mine blast. The boot will be designed by researchers to transfer the blast energy away from the hind foot, which if damaged can often lead to amputation, towards the shin bone which can be more easily reconstructed. It is expected that a prototype boot will be ready in late 2012.

Apart from causing severe damage to extremities, shockwaves from IED blasts can also cause system-wide internal trauma to the body that can damage whole organs as well as disrupting cellular and molecular processes. These injuries may not show for days, making it difficult for medical teams initially to detect and gauge the severity of blast trauma, at the time it is most needed.

Understanding how blasts affect the body internally in more detail could lead to new therapies and better outcomes for patients.

For example, the researchers at the Centre hope to develop a test that can detect at the molecular level the early onset of Blast Lung - the most common cause of death among people who initially survive an explosion. The symptoms, which may not show up for days, include severe bruising, bleeding, swelling and damage to blood vessels in the lung, and impair the ability of the lungs to deliver oxygen to organs and remove carbon dioxide from the body. Diagnosing Blast Lung in patients during the initial assessment could avoid complications common with this injury such as fluid build up in the lung, improving the chances of survival for patients.