Game-changing biodegradable implant could replace many pharma drugs

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Scientists have developed a new biodegradable implant that rapidly repairs nerves, potentially doing away with many pharmaceutical drugs.

A team of scientists from Northwestern University and Washington University has revealed a new device that could have major implications for repairing damaged nerves.

In a paper published to Nature Medicine, the researchers revealed they had developed the first example of bioelectric medicine using an implantable, biodegradable wireless device that speeds up nerve regeneration and improves the healing of a damaged nerve.

The size of a small coin but as thin as paper, the device delivers regular pulses of electricity to damaged nerves over a period of two weeks, after which it will dissolve harmlessly into the body.

The team envisions that once fully developed, the concept would be able to complement or completely replace pharmaceutical treatments for a variety of common medical conditions.

Currently, for cases requiring surgery, electrical stimulation is used to aid recovery but until now there was no way to provide continuous stimulation through the recovery process.

“These engineered systems provide active, therapeutic function in a programmable, dosed format and then naturally disappear into the body, without a trace,” said Northwestern’s John A Rogers, a pioneer in bio-integrated technologies and a co-senior author of the study. “This approach to therapy allows one to think about options that go beyond drugs and chemistry.”

Initial testing of the device in post-surgery rats was able to show that it accelerated the regrowth of nerves in their legs while enhancing the ultimate recovery of muscle strength and control. While the device has not been tested in humans, the findings offer promise as a future therapeutic option for nerve injury patients.

3D model of human muscle with the biodegradable implant placed on it.

The wireless device naturally absorbs into the body after a week or two. Image: Northwestern University

How much stimulation do we need?

The technology used to create the biodegradable device was eight years in the making. When placed in the body, it wraps around the injured nerve to deliver the pulses of electricity.

The device is powered and controlled wirelessly by a transmitter outside of the mode, similar to how a wireless charging mat works with a mobile phone. During testing with rats, the team found that the more days of stimulation they received, the quicker they recovered.

Dr Wilson Ray of the team said: “Before we did this study, we weren’t sure that longer stimulation would make a difference and now that we know it does, we can start trying to find the ideal timeframe to maximise recovery.

“Had we delivered electrical stimulation for 12 days instead of six, would there have been more therapeutic benefit? Maybe. We’re looking into that now.”

Other potential uses of the device include a temporary pacemaker and as an interface to the spinal cord and other stimulation sites across the human body.

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com