First ever bioelectronic medicine speeds up nerve regeneration in animal studies.
Car accidents or sports injuries, even too much texting can injure the peripheral nerves, leaving people with numbness, tingling and weakness in their limbs. For cases requiring surgery, standard practice is to administer electrical stimulation during the surgery to aid recovery, however, it is not possible to continuously provide electrical stimulation at various time points throughout the recovery and healing process. Now, a study from researchers led by Washington University develops an implantable, biodegradable device which delivers regular pulses of electricity to damaged peripheral nerves in rats, helping to regrow nerves in their legs and recover nerve function and muscle strength more quickly. The team state that their new technology represents the first example of bioresorbable electronic medicine, engineered systems which provide active, therapeutic function in a programmable, dosed format and then naturally disappear into the body, without a trace. The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.
Previous studies show that unlike neurons in the central nerval system, the peripheral nerves that run through the arms, legs and torso can regenerate after injury. It is known that electrical stimulation triggers the release of growth-promoting proteins, promoting nerve cells’ natural abilities helping them regrow faster, however, clinicians have lacked the means to continuously provide this type of boost. The current study develops a thin, flexible device which wraps around an injured nerve and delivers electrical pulses at specific times for days, before the device harmlessly degrades in the body.
The current study develops a bioresorbable electronic devices controlled wirelessly by a transmitter outside the body, which promotes the recovery of a damaged peripheral nerve, via electrical stimulation at select time points. The bioelectronic device was used in rats with injured sciatic nerves, nerves which send signals up and down the legs, and controls the hamstrings and muscles of the lower legs and feet. The device provided electrical stimulation one hour per day to the rats for one, three or six days or no electrical stimulation at all, and then monitored their recovery for the next 10 weeks.
Results show that electrical stimulation was better than none at helping the rats recover muscle mass and muscle strength. Data findings show that the more days the rats received electrical stimulation, the more quickly they recovered nerve signaling and muscle strength; with no adverse biological effects from the device and its reabsorption recorded. The lab state their study also showed the device can work as a temporary pacemaker and as an interface to the spinal cord, as well as other stimulation sites across the body, suggesting a broader utility beyond the peripheral nervous system.
The team surmise that they have developed the first example of a bioelectronic medicine, an implantable, biodegradable wireless device that speeds nerve regeneration and improves the healing of a damaged nerve via set dosages. For the future, the researchers envision that such transient engineered technologies could one day complement or replace pharmaceutical treatments for a variety of medical conditions in humans.