Cotton and shrimp — you're not likely to see it as a surf 'n' turf special on the menu at your favorite restaurant, but the unlikely combination may hold promise for alleviating hard-to-treat wounds.

Agricultural Research Service Chemist Vince Edwards and his group in the USDA-ARS Cotton Chemistry and Utilization Research Unit at the Southern Regional Research Center, New Orleans, are working on an array of valuable medical products that can halt bleeding, soothe burns, fight microbes, and more — all using cotton.

Their work, reported by Erin Peabody in the February issue of Agricultural Research magazine, also is focusing on the possible use of specially-treated cotton for high tech military clothing that could halt blood loss in a hemorrhaging event, offering protection that could be as vital as body armor.

Cotton is ideal for medical dressings, Edwards notes, because it is soft, pliable, and provides a ready substrate for locking in health-promoting compounds.

One such substance, chitosan, a unique carbohydrate in shrimp shells, is “a true natural wonder,” he says. In addition to its anti-bacterial qualities, it is also a natural clot promoter.

Dressings modified with chitosan are already in military use, but Edwards has developed an improved method for more uniformly embedding the compound in cotton fibers for use in a variety of cotton materials, including fabric for medical gauze, clothing, and hospital sheets.

Testing hurdles remain, but he and his team hope their work will result in more effective products for both military and civilian use.

One that's moving toward the marketplace is a “bandage with a brain,” a wound dressing that targets destructive enzymes (proteases) that collect in chronic wounds.

In many chronic wounds, the body's natural defenses produce too many “foot soldiers” to break down dead and dying tissue. Edwards' dressing, licensed to a Virginia company and approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006, was the first bandage of its kind with proven ability to sop up excess protease — 40 percent to 80 percent more effectively than untreated cotton wound dressings. It may also promote protein-building microphages, necessary for proper skin healing. It is hoped the dressing will be adopted by the Veterans Administration for use in its hospitals.

Edwards and his team are also working on improved bed sheets, woven from the smoothest of cotton fibers, for use in treating and perhaps preventing pressure ulcers. The wrinkle-free, super smooth sheets can also be treated with the shrimp shell chitosan to help fight microbes.

“There's a lot of potential in this field,” he says. “Hospital sheets haven't changed much in the last 100 years.”

Chronic wounds — hard to heal bed sores or pressure ulcers — are a painful, sometimes fatal, condition affecting about 5 million Americans, mostly elderly patients restricted to hospital beds or diabetics with circulation problems.

It costs more than $7 billion annual to treat these wounds, and that's expected to increase substantially as the nation's elderly population increases. All this represents a great opportunity for improving treatment products, Edwards says, and more innovative uses of cotton and textiles.