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Electrical Field May Speed Wound Healing By Encouraging Cell Regeneration


This next story reveals another of the wonders of electric power. A scientist in Wisconsin invented an electrical bandage, which speeds up the time it takes a wound to heal. This same approach, we're told, may someday help overweight people shed pounds and bald people to grow new hair. Let's plug in this story by NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: When we have a cut or a burn, our bodies generate tiny electric fields. Material scientist Xudong Wang at the University of Wisconsin in Madison says these electric fields play an important role in helping the wound to heal.

XUDONG WANG: The electric field can facilitate cell regeneration.

PALCA: So Wang decided to make a bandage that generated its own electric field to encourage that cell regeneration. He made the bandage out of a material that generates an electric field when it's stretched or pulled. So simply by moving, an animal wearing the bandage generates the field.

WANG: It doesn't require an external power source or control. It's just using the body itself as a source to provide stimulations.

PALCA: Wang tested his bandage on a rat with a cut wound that he knew typically took about two weeks to heal.

WANG: It recovered in three days - completely closed.

PALCA: An encouraging first step in creating a bandage for treating human wounds. But there's an important caveat, says Angela Gibson.

ANGELA GIBSON: Rodent wound healing is vastly different than human wound healing.

PALCA: Gibson is a trauma and burn surgeon at the University of Wisconsin. Even with that caveat, she was sufficiently impressed with Wang's animal results to begin the preliminary testing needed to see if it was worth trying the bandage with patients.

GIBSON: My goal is trying to test this in humans - in human skin first, not on humans.

PALCA: She is developing a way to test the bandage on skin cells growing in the lab.

GIBSON: And then we also have grafted human skin onto mice.

PALCA: That will give her a way to see how the bandage behaves in a living animal.

Xudong Wang has other tantalizing ideas in the pipeline that use these same materials that generate electric fields in response to movements. For example, he's made a kind of patch that attaches to a rat's stomach, with electrodes that connect to a nerve that runs directly to the rat's brain. When the rat eats food, the stomach starts to move.

WANG: And this movement will activate the device, generate electrical pulses and stimulate the nerve and transmit a signal to the brain and tell the brain to stop eating.

PALCA: He's shown rats wearing the patch lose weight. And if that weren't enough, he's also made a kind of patch that can be placed on rats' skin that had been shaved. The electric field from that patch activated the rat hair follicles.

WANG: In three weeks, the hair grows much faster. And it's much denser hairs coming out from this addressed area.

PALCA: He's made a baseball cap lined with the same material that a bald person could wear as a way of conveniently generating the electric field and applying it to someone's scalp. He expects the electric field will reactivate hair follicles that have switched off. He's awaiting approval to try the cap in human volunteers. I'm guessing he won't have any trouble finding volunteers if and when that approval is granted.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "PARTLY FRACTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.