Electricity can heal even the worst kind of wounds three times faster, new study finds

Scientists used an old theory to develop a new technique that involves exposing skin cells to an electric field to make the wounds on the skin heal faster.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Skin wounds healing in the presence of an electric field.
Skin wounds healing in the presence of an electric field.

Science Brush | Hassan A. Tahini

Researchers from Chalmers Insitute of Technology (CTH) and the University of Freiburg have proposed an interesting technique that enables chronic wounds to heal faster than ever.  

Medical conditions like diabetes, cancer, disturbed blood circulation, and spinal injuries can sometimes impair our body’s natural ability to heal wounds. Patients who live with such conditions often experience wounds that don’t heal.

These unrepaired chronic wounds become a source of infection and sometimes even lead to amputations, making patients' lives very difficult. In their latest study, the researchers claim to heal chronic wounds three times faster using electric current. 

“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,” said Maria Asplund, one of the study authors and an associate Professor of Bioelectronics at CTH.

Using electric stimulation to repair wounds 

A 2021 report published by the Natural Library of Medicine reveals that about 2.5 percent of Americans i.e., over eight million people in the US alone, experience chronic wounds at least once. 

Any such wound makes a person vulnerable to infections, and if the person is old, the risk of their catching diseases increases. Therefore, it becomes crucial to treat them as soon as possible. Interestingly, the electric stimulation method proposed by the researchers is based on a well-known hypothesis that suggests that human skin is electrostatic.

It means that the cells of our skin are sensitive to electric current. So when placed in an electric field, the cells are likely to start moving toward the direction of the area. Using this hypothesis as the base of their study, the researchers conducted an interesting experiment.

They created a biochip containing cultured skin cells with properties similar to human skin cells. Next, they chose two cells and made wounds on them. One cell was allowed to repair under an electric field (200mV/mm), while the other healed without any electric stimulation. 

The researchers noticed that electricity enabled the former to heal three times faster than the latter. “We were able to show that the old hypothesis about electric stimulation can be used to make wounds heal significantly faster,” said Asplund.

According to the study authors, an electric field act as a guide to skin cells. In the absence of current, the cells move randomly, and therefore, the process of healing is slow. However, when cells are electrically stimulated, they all align in one direction and migrate fast toward the damaged site, eventually making a wound heal more quickly. 

Moreover, no side effects were noticed on the cultured wounded cells due to the electric stimulation.

Electric wound healing can help millions

Asplund and her team believe that their healing method could be beneficial, especially for diabetes patients across the globe who are generally at greater risk of experiencing chronic wounds. In many such patients, even minor cuts turn into ulcers and long-lasting infections.

They tested their approach in diabetes models and noticed that the speed of healing in cultures cells with diabetes increased under the influence of an electric field. Asplund further explained, “With electric stimulation, we can increase the speed of healing so that the diabetes-affected cells almost correspond to healthy skin cells.”

The researchers claim that electric wound healing could help millions of patients worldwide who bear chronic wounds' pain. They will continue their research to improve the method further and dig deep into the various factors that enable skin cells to heal faster in the presence of electricity. 

The study is published in the journal Lab on a Chip.

Study Abstract:

Upon cutaneous injury, the human body naturally forms an electric field (EF) that acts as a guidance cue for relevant cellular and tissue repair and reorganization. However, the direct current (DC) flow imparted by this EF can be impacted by a variety of diseases. This work delves into the impact of DC stimulation on both healthy and diabetic in vitro wound healing models of human keratinocytes, the most prevalent cell type of the skin. The culmination of non-metal electrode materials and prudent microfluidic design allowed us to create a compact bioelectronic platform to study the effects of different sustained (12 hours galvanostatic DC) EF configurations on wound closure dynamics. Specifically, we compared if electrostatically closing a wound's gap from one wound edge (i.e., uni-directional EF) is as effective as compared to alternatingly polarizing both the wound's edges (i.e., pseudo-converging EF) as both of these spatial stimulation strategies are fundamental to the eventual translational electrode design and process. We found that uni-directional electric guidance cues were superior in group keratinocyte healing dynamics by enhancing the wound closure rate nearly three-fold for both healthy and diabetic-like keratinocyte collectives, compared to their non-stimulated respective controls. The motility-inhibited and diabetic-like keratinocytes regained wound closure rates with uni-directional electrical stimulation (an increase from 1.0 to 2.8% h−1) comparable to their healthy non-stimulated keratinocyte counterparts (3.5% h−1). Our results bring hope that electrical stimulation delivered in a controlled manner can be a viable pathway to accelerate wound repair, and also by providing a baseline for other researchers trying to find an optimal electrode blueprint for in vivo DC stimulation.

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