In Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgents rely heavily on hidden explosives to deter enemy forces, soldiers constantly run the risk of getting blown up. Of the 50,000 American troops wounded in those conflicts, most of them have been victims of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Genital wounds resulting from IEDs are more common than most Americans realize. Between 2001-2013, nearly 1,400 male U.S. service members suffered such wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense Trauma registry. Of them, an estimated 440 sustained injuries that made it either difficult or impossible to reproduce.
Fortunately, Pentagon-backed research at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina may eventually change that. Doctors there have successfully used stem cells to reconstruct fully intact testicles that are capable of producing sperm.
But there's one major problem: they're really, really small.
"The future plans are to grow the testicular tissue, expand the cells and put it back into the patient," Dr. Anthony Atala, the institute's director, tells Motherboard. "But for a whole testicle, there is a very rich blood-vessel supply and that the challenge. We can make them small, but we're working hard to make them larger."
Dr. Atala estimates that it will be at least a decade before lab-grown testicles are a viable commonplace treatment for soldiers. But until then, there are other, less futuristic measures that can be taken to increase the chances that a soldier who suffers genital wounds will be able to conceive children. Extracting and storing semen from soldiers immediately after they're wounded is one option that has become protocol in the British Army. Another is to encourage soldiers to have their sperm frozen before deployment.
Or, soldiers can wear a "nut flap" — a triangular piece of kevlar that hangs in front of the groin — while on patrol, protecting their arsenal from imminent harm. That might be the least appealing option: In their current form, groin protectors are both uncomfortable and cumbersome — not ideal for grueling foot patrols. They also have a reputation among soldiers for not being very IED-proof.
"It's really not going to do much in the case of a blast, it's more there for getting shot" former U.S. Army bomb tech Aaron Causey told Motherboard. Causey lost both legs and part of his testicles to an IED in Afghanistan. “I was more worried about getting blown up.”