Over recent years, medicine has experienced a very exciting paradigm shift, evolving from a passive style of treating disease step by step to a more active and dynamic approach. Exciting new research published by a team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the journal Advanced Materials takes another significant step in that direction.
The Brigham and Women’s researchers used the complicated process of electrospinning to design polymer-based electronics made of nanofibers, which may aid in tissue regeneration and healing. Most importantly, the new flexible platform is degradable in the human body and it’s elastic, allowing it to be stretched like fabric.
In plain old English, this means that the researchers are using this complicated technology to create responsive sensors, spurring the development of smarter medical devices. For example, the team hopes to develop smart ‘band-aids’ that can sense and release drugs and treat patients. “In the future, for instance, let’s say an individual has a heart attack and thus has a piece of dead muscle tissue,” says Dr. Ali Khademhosseini, senior study author and Associate Professor at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. “You can potentially use a smart band-aid in the heart to sense and assess the state of the dead heart tissue, and even release drugs to induce regeneration in a controlled way.” Then, because the platform is built in a biodegradable manner, it degrades away by itself, and no biotoxic effects occur.
Dr. Ali Khademhosseini believes that the new research has amazing potential, particularly for the process of wound healing. “We’re thinking of making the electronics components capable of sensing particular aspects of the wound; for example, we could be sensing the pH to see if there’s any bacteria present (by measuring the byproducts which bacteria produce), or to sense things like temperature of the wound at any given time,” he says.
But the applications of the research aren’t simply limited to passive treatment, according to Dr. Khademhosseini. The new system could adapt dynamically to the constantly changing environment inside the human body as well. “There are components in these new electronics that will interact with the outside world using wireless sensors,” he explains. “And, there will also be feedback loops where sensors will be able to induce a responsive element to any input, like releasing drug or somehow otherwise aiding the healing process.”
There are some challenges that remain to be resolved before the platform can be implemented. While the core electronics themselves have been developed, one of the key aspects of the platform (the wound healing functionality) must be tightly integrated with the entire platform itself. “We need to be able to integrate all of the sensors and electronics in a way so that everything can be functional, biocompatible, and degradable at the same time,” says Dr. Khademhosseini. The many different types of sensors must also be fully functional, and stimuli and cues for these sensors must also be discovered. Cost effectiveness and mass marketing ability is also a consideration for the development of this platform.
But ultimately, Dr. Khademhosseini believes that the team will get past these things, revolutionizing medical treatment. “It’s an end point that we and other people believe in.” he says. “This research is the development of a new tool set that will allow us to develop smarter medical devices of the future.”
Dhillon is MedTech Boston’s social media intern. He manages MTB’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, in addition to covering West Coast innovation events. Dhillon is also a student at University of California, Berkeley where he is majoring in molecular and cell biology. He is involved in dermatology, cardiology, and burn surgery research, and also serves on the Editorial Board for Stylus, the official medical humanities journal of University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
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