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Electric Shock Bandage
A new device powered by energy harvested from the body’s natural motions accelerates wound healing by delivering gentle electric pulses to an injury site. (Credit: Sam Million-Weaver)

A new, low-cost wound dressing could dramatically speed up healing in a surprising way. The method leverages energy generated from a patient’s own body motions to apply gentle electrical pulses at the site of an injury.

In rodent tests, the dressings reduced healing times to a mere three days compared to nearly two weeks for the normal healing process.

Researchers have known for several decades that electricity can be beneficial for skin healing, but most electrotherapy units in use today require bulky electrical equipment and complicated wiring to deliver powerful jolts of electricity. In contrast with existing methods, the new dressing is much more straightforward.

The new dressings consist of small electrodes for the injury site that are linked to a band holding energy-harvesting units called nanogenerators, which are looped around a wearer’s torso. The natural expansion and contraction of the wearer’s ribcage during breathing powers the nanogenerators, which deliver low-intensity electric pulses.

And, those low-power pulses won’t harm healthy tissue like traditional, high-power electrotherapy devices might. In fact, the researchers showed that exposing cells to high-energy electrical pulses caused them to produce almost five times more reactive oxygen species — major risk factors for cancer and cellular aging — than did cells that were exposed to the nanogenerators.

Also a boon to healing: They determined that the low-power pulses boosted viability for a type of skin cell called fibroblasts, and exposure to the nanogenerator’s pulses encouraged fibroblasts to line up (a crucial step in wound healing) and produce more biochemical substances that promote tissue growth.

In that vein, the researchers aim to tease out precisely how the gentle pulses aid in healing. The scientists also plan to test the devices on pig skin, which closely mimics human tissue.

And, they are working to give the nanogenerators additional capabilities — tweaking their structure to allow for energy harvesting from small imperceptible twitches in the skin or the thrumming pulse of a heartbeat. If the team is successful, the devices could help solve a major challenge for modern medicine.

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