WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Many people around the world suffer from what is today irreparable nerve damage, but this new technology can repair these nerves, restore bodily functions, and disappear without trace.
Lots of people, especially the military, are increasingly interested in creating electronic devices that disappear once they’ve been used. In the military it’s because a drone, for example, like the US military’s proposed Vampire drone, that turns to gas once it’s completed its mission, meaning it can’t be captured and torn apart by adversaries. But disappearing electronics are also important in the healthcare industry where researchers can implant devices into patients bodies that carry out certain actions and then vanish once their mission is complete.
This week bioengineers in the US announced they’d come up with a new way to heal damaged nerves by inventing a new type of “bioelectronic medicine” – a new field of medicine that’s attracting billions of dollars worth of funding from the likes of GSK, that, as the name suggests, uses electricity not conventional drugs to help people heal better and faster. In this case the implantable, biodegradable wireless device speeds up the process of healing some of the most difficult to treat injuries in the human body.
See it in action
Two teams collaborated on the project. Materials scientists and engineers from Northwestern University worked closely alongside neurosurgeons from the University of Washington (UW) on the device.
The result is a dime sized, ultra-thin wireless device that delivers pulses of electricity to damaged nerves after surgery, then, after two weeks the tiny device is naturally absorbed into the body.
The research was published in a recent edition of the journal Nature Medicine.
A key benefit of pursuing biodegradable electronic devices for use within the human body is providing treatment directly to an affected area while reducing the repercussions of traditional, permanent implants.
“These engineered systems provide active, therapeutic function in a programmable, dosed format and then naturally disappear into the body, without a trace,” said Northwestern’s John A. Rogers, a pioneer in bio-integrated technologies and a co-senior author of the study. “This approach to therapy allows one to think about options that go beyond drugs and chemistry.”
Rogers and his team have spent the last eight years specialising in electronics, especially biodegradable devices, and when the neurosurgeons at UW reached out to them Rogers knew they could come up with an innovative solution.
“We know that electrical stimulation during surgery helps, but once the surgery is over, the window for intervening is closed,” said co-senior author Wilson “Zack” Ray, an associate professor of neurosurgery, of biomedical engineering and of orthopedic surgery at UW. “With this device, we’ve shown that electrical stimulation given on a scheduled basis can further enhance nerve recovery and help patients heal faster.”
The Northwestern team developed a flexible device capable of wrapping around injured groups of nerves. A remote transmitter powers the device like a cellphone-charging mat, the team explained.
The group then tested the devices in lab settings. They used rats with injured sciatic nerves, which are the nerves that send signals up and down the legs. For an hour a day, the devices gave the rats electrical stimulation. The study lasted 10 weeks, and the researchers sectioned the rats into varying degrees of treatment.
The neuroscientists discovered the more days of electrical stimulation the rats got, the faster they recovered in both nerve and muscle strength. There were also no adverse effects found from the device absorbing into the rats.
“Before we did this study, we weren’t sure that longer stimulation would make a difference, and now that we know it does, we can start trying to find the ideal time frame to maximize recovery,” Ray said. “Had we delivered electrical stimulation for 12 days instead of six, would there have been more therapeutic benefit? Maybe. We’re looking into that now.”
The success with this device is giving both teams more ideas about how they can apply the breakthrough research elsewhere. Next steps include strengthening the power of the signal to the device and lengthening the amount of time the device operates before degrading.
“We engineer the devices to disappear,” Rogers said. “This notion of transient electronic devices has been a topic of deep interest in my group for nearly 10 years – a grand quest in materials science, in a sense. We are excited because we now have the pieces – the materials, the devices, the fabrication approaches, the system-level engineering concepts – to exploit these concepts in ways that could have relevance to grand challenges in human health.”
The researchers hope to one day engineer the device to replace treatments for a number of medical conditions in humans, and thanks to the device’s broad utility, one day it might even become a temporary pacemaker, used to heal a damaged heart, or a spinal cord interface to help cure and reverse paralysis, something that we’re already mastering thanks to new breakthroughs elsewhere.