Medical

Supercharging the Band-Aid: Five futuristic bandages that could take wound healing to the next level

What will the Band-Aid look like a decade or two down the track?
What will the Band-Aid look like a decade or two down the track?
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A wound treated via electrical stimulation (right) versus one left to heal normally (left), after 10 days healing time, as part of a 2015 study at the  University of Manchester 
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A wound treated via electrical stimulation (right) versus one left to heal normally (left), after 10 days healing time, as part of a 2015 study at the  University of Manchester 
Before (L) and after (R) images show the population of bacteria (green) was drastically reduced following the application of the an electrified scaffold
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Before (L) and after (R) images show the population of bacteria (green) was drastically reduced following the application of the an electrified scaffold
A University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers fits a smart bandage around the wrist of graduate student Yin Long
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A University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers fits a smart bandage around the wrist of graduate student Yin Long
If a wound has turned chronic, sensor areas on the Flusitex bandage will glow when exposed to UV light
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If a wound has turned chronic, sensor areas on the Flusitex bandage will glow when exposed to UV light
As a side benefit, the benzalkonium chloride in the Flusitex bandage is known to kill harmful Staphylococcus aureus bacteria
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As a side benefit, the benzalkonium chloride in the Flusitex bandage is known to kill harmful Staphylococcus aureus bacteria
The prototype smart bandage developed at Tufts University
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The prototype smart bandage developed at Tufts University
A prototype of the bandage developed by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvard Medical School and MIT
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A prototype of the bandage developed by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvard Medical School and MIT
What will the Band-Aid look like a decade or two down the track?
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What will the Band-Aid look like a decade or two down the track?

Today's bandages are pretty good at covering up wounds, sealing them off from infectious bacteria and allowing the body to go to work patching up the damage. But could there come a time when bandages play more of an active role in accelerating healing and fighting infection, so we can peel them off and get on with our lives sooner? A number of research groups around the world have already produced promising experimental versions of futuristic bandages that could take our healing game to the next level. Here's a look at some of the more interesting examples.

How to improve today's typical wound dressing is a problem researchers are coming at from all kinds of angles. This includes everything from using body heat to hurry things along, to hydrogels that deliver medicine to the site, to bandages that take their cues from the healing properties of scabs.

Amid all this exciting progress, there are two mechanisms in particular that are providing promising paths forward. One centers on the notion that electrical currents can be harnessed to speed up healing by killing off bacteria and promoting blood flow to the site. This has long been explored as a way of accelerating wound healing, but one 2015 study started to give the idea real substance.

A wound treated via electrical stimulation (right) versus one left to heal normally (left), after 10 days healing time, as part of a 2015 study at the  University of Manchester 
A wound treated via electrical stimulation (right) versus one left to heal normally (left), after 10 days healing time, as part of a 2015 study at the  University of Manchester 

The other revolves around fluctuating pH levels in fluids at the site of a wound. By sneaking sensors into wound dressings that can monitor these biomarkers, scientists are coming up with inventive ways to not only track the progress being made behind the curtain, but even deliver medication automatically as it is required.

Here are five experimental prototypes that you won't be seeing in the clinic any time soon, but do leverage these technologies to demonstrate what wound dressing could look like further down the track.

Electrifying the Band-Aid

Before (L) and after (R) images show the population of bacteria (green) was drastically reduced following the application of the an electrified scaffold
Before (L) and after (R) images show the population of bacteria (green) was drastically reduced following the application of the an electrified scaffold

Back in 2015, scientists at Washington State University published a paper detailing what they described as an electronic Band-Aid. The device consisted of a conductive carbon fabric that could be fed with an electrical current, which generated hydrogen peroxide that served to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The team tested out the tech on pig tissue against the multi-drug resistant bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii, where it reduced the population to 1/10,000th of its size within 24 hours.

Powered by the human body

A University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers fits a smart bandage around the wrist of graduate student Yin Long
A University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers fits a smart bandage around the wrist of graduate student Yin Long

While the potential of using electricity to promote wound healing has been explored through clunky electrotherapy units and the like, last year scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published research describing a decidedly more portable option. With a band wrapped around the patient's torso embedded with nanogenerators to harvest energy from the movement of the ribcage during breathing, the system could provide power to an electric bandage. During experiments, this healed skin-thick wounds in lab rats within three days, compared to the 12 days it took a control group.

A bandage that glows when it's time to go

If a wound has turned chronic, sensor areas on the Flusitex bandage will glow when exposed to UV light
If a wound has turned chronic, sensor areas on the Flusitex bandage will glow when exposed to UV light

Monitoring the progress of a wound presents something of a dilemma for clinicians, as repeatedly peeling back the dressing for a look invites a greater risk of infection. Back in 2017, scientists in Switzerland demonstrated a bandage that glows when the wound becomes chronic. This is based on the idea that pH levels of the wound's fluids spike at eight and then settle on five or six if it is healing healthily, while a steady seven or eight indicates a chronic situation. The bandage has custom-made molecules within it that light up only when pH is at 7.5, while anything else means the dressing can be left in place.

A drip-feed of on-demand medication

The prototype smart bandage developed at Tufts University
The prototype smart bandage developed at Tufts University

Leaning on pH levels for wound monitoring is one thing, but could such an approach be used to deliver medicines as needed? Last year, a team at Tufts University demonstrated how such a thing could be possible through a smart bandage with a built-in sensor to measure pH values of the wound. A built-in microprocessor uses these readings to determine if an infection of inflammation is present, with higher levels again indicating that all is not well. If that's the case, it heats up antibiotic gels that release drugs in response to the threat.

Bringing the smartphone into the mix

A prototype of the bandage developed by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvard Medical School and MIT
A prototype of the bandage developed by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvard Medical School and MIT

Back in 2017, we looked at a smart bandage that also used gels to contain tiny doses of different medicines, with a built in micro-controller sending a voltage through certain fibers to selectively release the drugs inside. These could be triggered automatically by fluctuating pH levels or even glucose, or alternatively, has the capacity to be triggered wirelessly by a smartphone.

"This is the first bandage that is capable of dose-dependent drug release," University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor and team member Ali Tamayol said at the time.

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