Robert Diegelmann, C’65
Robert Diegelmann, C’65, is an EMT as well as a professor of biochemistry, anatomy and emergency medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. He has seen firsthand the impact of trauma and injury. With injuries involving severe bleeding in particular he often wished he could do more. “All you can do is put pressure on the wound and get them to the hospital as fast as possible,” he says.
The EMT may have been frustrated. But the scientist was seeking solutions. The result is WoundStat, a revolutionary technology to control severe bleeding. And, although Diegelmann has spent 35 years studying the healing process of wounds and how to better treat them, even he admits that WoundStat is something special. “This stands out,” he says. “It has such lifesaving potential.”
Indeed. The lightweight, granular substance can stop deadly arterial hemorrhaging in less than three minutes and lasts for more than three hours. WoundStat was recently developed by Diegelmann and his fellow researchers at VCU’s Reanimation Engineering Shock Center (VCURES) using a mineral compound and a highly absorbent polymer. “The material we use is both absorbent and adherent, which helps quickly stop the bleeding while simultaneously facilitating clotting,” explains Diegelmann.
WoundStat, which is being further developed and marketed by TraumaCure, Inc., can be used on wounds that are not reachable by a tourniquet. It is easy to carry and can be applied on the spot. The product received FDA clearance last September after only six weeks of review, and will be made available first to the military. Uncontrolled bleeding is the primary cause of death on the battlefield. In fact, Army estimates state that 20 percent of such deadly injuries could be avoided with an effective hemostatic agent such as WoundStat.
“To be involved with something like this that could help so many people is extremely gratifying,” notes Diegelmann.
The Road to Research
For Diegelmann, WoundStat is a continuation of a career that has focused on improving lives. “All research has its place,” he reflects. “ But I believe research that helps alleviate human suffering is in a league of its own.”
Diegelmann’s own path as a researcher began early on when he discovered a love for biology in high school—quite by accident, he says. “We had a choice to take biology or typing class. I chose biology.” He adds with a grin, “I’m not very fast on the computer. I still hunt and peck.” Originally from Washington, D.C, Diegelmann attended Catholic schools throughout his education and knew he wanted to attend a Catholic college as well. “I visited the Mount and fell in love,” he says.
Pre-med at the Mount, Diegelmann recalls the faculty as inspiring and encouraging, especially William Meredith, then assistant professor of biology. “He triggered a curiosity in his students,” remembers Diegelmann. “Later, I found myself teaching a lot like he did. He led his students along the trail of discovery.”
On campus, Dieglemann found his place with fellow science students. “The education and history guys called us the ‘Tubes,’ for test tubes. We were always stuck in some corner going over our organic chemistry notes," he says with a chuckle.
He adds, “The Mount was a class act school that fostered lifelong values. Here you were on this beautiful campus with its stone buildings and the mountain behind you. And we were close as students. We never needed a fraternity. The whole place was our fraternity. We all looked after each other.”
After graduating and despite being a strong student, Diegelmann struggled with the standard testing process and was unable to get into medical school. Instead, he decided to attend Georgetown University for his master’s degree. While there he became involved with research on the biosynthesis of an anti-cancer drug called Actinomycin D. The drug was developed to treat Wilm’s tumor, a kidney cancer found in children, and is still used today.
Diegelmann had found his calling. “I loved research,” he says, “and that whole experience of working on a project to develop new applications no one knows about yet.”
He went on to receive his Ph.D., teaching second-year medical students along the way. “Ironic, huh?” he says. His time at Georgetown was quickly followed by a three-year stint as a postdoctoral fellow at NIH’s National Cancer Institute’s Laboratory of Physiology. While there he studied the biosynthesis of collagen, the protein that makes up skin, bone, tendons and ligaments. By 1972, he had joined Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical college at the urging of a former colleague from NIH. “He had started up the division of plastic surgery,” says Diegelmann, “and recruited me.”
At VCU, Diegelmann established the Wound Healing Research Laboratory in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. During those early days, he remembers often accompanying his colleague and friend on rounds. “I’d see the patients who had been in auto accidents or suffered some other type of blunt force trauma. Many had facial injuries. I’d think to myself, ‘What can we do to find ways to help patients heal and feel better?’”
“There are so many problems in dealing with wounds,” says Diegelmann, who is now the director of the Laboratory of Tissue Repair at VCU Medical Center. “With excessive healing you have scar tissue and fibrosis. On the other side, there are patients who don’t heal, with chronic pressure ulcers or diabetic ulcers.
“Treating wounds was based on a trial and error approach in the past. No one really understood what was happening within a wound on the molecular and biochemical level. When tissue is disrupted what comes into play to allow that wound to heal? Once we understand this process better, we can design better treatments.”
Diegelmann cofounded the Wound Healing Society and co-edited the textbook, “Wound Healing: Biochemical and Clinical Aspects.” He has published well over 150 scientific manuscripts and book chapters on wound healing. His research has been continuously funded by NIH, the Department of Defense and private industry. Currently, he is a senior scientist with VCURES and is the program director of the NIH Post Doctoral Training Program on Signaling in Tissue Injury and Repair.
As a member of the VCU medical school faculty, he has taught countless students and found much gratification. “I find it very enjoyable to interact with students,” he says. “It keeps you thinking and keeps you young.” In 2005, he was recognized with the school of medicine’s highest award for teaching excellence.
Life outside of the lab and classroom has been full as well. He and his wife, Penny, have five children. A son and daughter, now grown, are pursuing careers in the medical field. The Diegelmanns for a number of years opened their hearts and home to foster children through the Catholic Charities program. “When babies were put up for adoption, the mother had 30 days to think it over,” says Diegelmann. “We kept the babies those 30 days before sending them off to their new families. We’d take a lot of pictures and document what took place that first month for the adoptive parents. We loved having the babies around.”
In the early 1990s, he joined the Forest View Rescue Squad near his home as a volunteer EMT. He went on to serve as deputy chief, captain and vice president and has been honored for his work there. Diegelmann finds the experience challenging and invigorating. “You never know what you are going to see—from an elderly lady who has fallen to a massive multi-car pile up with severe injuries.
“It’s my way of having patient interaction. That’s important to me.”
And, in many ways, to his research, as well. “You clearly see the need,” he says.
The Birth of WoundStat
With such a need in mind, he and his fellow researchers several years ago began searching for a way to better treat wounds involving severe bleeding. “We were screening a variety of mineral and organic compounds, looking at materials that could facilitate blood clotting,” he explains. They were without much success. Then, while home during Christmas break, Diegelmann had an idea about a particular mineral compound that might just do what they needed. “I called up my colleague, Kevin Ward, an emergency medicine physician, and told him what I had in mind,” recalls Diegelmann. “He said, 'Meet me in the lab tomorrow morning.'”
The two did just that. The mineral compound proved successful. “It not only stopped the bleeding, but actually pulled the fluid out, as well as triggering clotting,” says Diegelmann. “I remember, we looked at each other thinking, ‘We really have something here!’”
According to Diegelmann, WoundStat appears to absorb the fluid components of blood so quickly it causes the platelets to release their clotting factors, thus resulting in clot formation. “A fibrin clot forms after only 10 seconds when blood is exposed to WoundStat,” he says. In addition, WoundStat becomes very sticky and forms a mold-like structure around the injured artery, sealing off the area.
With backing from the university, the researchers applied for a patent. “It was a big investment,” says Diegelmann. Thus far, however, WoundStat has far exceeded even initial expectations. A study published in the Journal of Trauma comparing WoundStat technology to then-existing products revealed that WoundStat succeeds where others fail. And it appears to have a long shelf life and does not cause any serious side effects.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the lab these days,” remarks Diegelmann.
Besides its use on the battlefield, Diegelmann envisions WoundStat being kept in police cars and ambulances as well as at schools and other facilities. It could be used during natural disasters or “any place someone is responding to an emergency situation,” he explains.
He and his fellow researchers also hope to develop a way to use WoundStat to control internal bleeding. “We’re looking at the same basic chemical components but with a different delivery system.”
On to the Next Challenge
Diegelmann eagerly anticipates new challenges ahead. In November he was awarded a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Army for a new three-year project studying the optimization of wound healing to limit infection.
“It’s like having a favorite hobby that you are passionate about and get paid to enjoy. Every day is different and exciting. I’m having a lot of fun.”
And helping save a lot of lives.
A Revolution in Emergency Care was written by Lisa Gregory (Originally printed in the Spring 2008 Mount Magazine.)