Healing chronic wounds three times faster with electricity

New research from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and the University of Freiburg, Germany, shows that wounds on cultured skin cells heal three times faster when stimulated with electric current. The project was recently granted more funding so the research can get one step closer to the market and the benefit of patients.
Image: © Science Brush | Hassan A. Tahini

Chronic wounds continue to cause problems for both elderly and diabetic patients; however, using electric stimulation, new research promises to speed up the healing process by up to three times

Researchers from both Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and the University of Freiburg, Germany, have been collaborating on a project to help those who suffer from chronic wounds heal faster than ever before and therefore negate the possibility of amputation in severe cases.

Commonly a small wound does not lead to any serious complications; however, for those with diabetes, spinal injuries or poor blood circulation, a small wound means a greater risk of infection and chronic wounds – which in the long run can lead to much more serious consequences such as amputation.

Maria Asplund, Associate Professor of Bioelectronics at Chalmers University of Technology and head of research on the project explained that “Chronic wounds are a huge societal problem that we don’t hear a lot about. Our discovery of a method that may heal wounds up to three times faster can be a game changer for diabetic and elderly people, among others, who often suffer greatly from wounds that won’t heal.”

Promoting faster wound healing through the electric guidance of cells

Past research has indicated the potential of electric stimulation for healing damaged skin. According to the team, they examined a previous hypothesis that claimed skin cells are electrotactic, meaning they “directionally migrate” when exposed to an electric field. This hypothesis implies that if an electric field is placed in a petri dish with skin cells, the cells stop moving randomly and start moving in the same direction

The team of researchers investigated how this principle could be used to electrically guide the cells in order to make wounds heal faster.

By using artificial skin and a small engineered chip, the researchers were able to compare wound healing rates. Stimulating one wound with electricity and leaving the other without, the differences between the two became obvious.

“We were able to show that the old hypothesis about electric stimulation can be used to make wounds heal significantly faster. In order to study exactly how this works for wounds, we developed a kind of biochip on which we cultured skin cells, which we then made tiny wounds in. Then we stimulated one wound with an electric field, which clearly led to it healing three times as fast as the wound that healed without electric stimulation,” Maria Asplund says.

Personalised medicine and individual treatment

With a new grant, the Chalmers researchers have the ability to continue their research and eventually develop individualised wound healing products for those in need.

“We are now looking at how different skin cells interact during stimulation, to take a step closer to a realistic wound. We want to develop a concept to be able to ‘scan’ wounds and adapt the stimulation based on the individual wound. We are convinced that this is the key to effectively helping individuals with slow-healing wounds in the future,” Asplund says.

With a low electric field (200 mV/mm) the team showed that wound healing on artificial skin stimulated with the electric current was three times faster than on the skin that healed naturally and did not have a negative impact on the cells.

“Wound healing on artificial skin stimulated with electric current was three times faster”

Chronic wound healing and the potential for diabetes treatments

Another focus for the research team was the potential for developing diabetes treatments.

Currently, one in 11 adults today has some form of diabetes according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Diabetes Federation so there is no shortage of those in need.

“We’ve looked at diabetes models of wounds and investigated whether our method could be effective even in those cases. We saw that when we mimic diabetes in the cells, the wounds on the chip heal very slowly. However, with electric stimulation we can increase the speed of healing so that the diabetes-affected cells almost correspond to healthy skin cells,” Asplund says.

“We furthermore showed that effective wound closing stimulation relies on a carefully controlled environment, dosage, and directionality of the electric field.”


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