Cell-killing electrical pulses help heal burns

In rat trials, burn scars were reduced in size by 58 percent by the end of a 20-day treatment period(Credit: audrey_sel/CC 2.0)

Although high-voltage electrical shocks can cause burns, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital have recently shown that the application of pulsed electric fields (PEF) actually aids in healing them. In a process known as partial irreversible electroporation, it does so by killing skin cells.

The research was conducted on lab rats, that received burn injuries while under anesthesia. Those rats were subsequently each subjected to five PEF treatment sessions spaced 20 days apart. PEF itself is non-invasive, and doesn't generate any heat.

Applied at the burn site, the electrical pulses cause tiny pores to form in cells' membranes. Although this kills the cells themselves, it leaves the extracellular matrix intact, along with surrounding structures such as blood vessels. Adjacent cells then proliferate, releasing factors that promote tissue growth and repair.

In the rat trials, scars were reduced in size by 58 percent by the end of the 20-day period. Additionally, there were significant improvements in the wounds' overall appearance and the structure, density and direction of collagen fibers.

"We showed that killing some, but not all of the cells in the wound could actually help regenerate skin without scarring," says Dr. Alexander Golberg, who led the research. "The main difference between this approach and procedures like ultrasound and lasers is that they operate on the whole tissue, while pulsed electric field treatment works on only a cellular level, which we expect will provide more precise treatment results in the future as we are able to target cells specifically."

It is hoped that human clinical trials may soon follow. A previous study did indicate the effectiveness of electrical stimulation on non-burn wounds on humans.

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