Irish researchers create implantable device to help heal tendon injuries

31 Aug 2021

The implantable mesh used to treat tendon damage. Image: Cúram

The researchers said that their movement-powered mesh may pave the way for a whole new class of regenerative electrical therapies.

Every year, more than 102m adults worldwide have serious tendon injuries. Treating these injuries isn’t easy. While surgical interventions currently represent the gold standard in care, these solutions often don’t fix the entire issue. Scar tissue frequently forms and surgery can result in chronic inflammation that impedes long-term healing.

This is why researchers at the Cúram SFI research centre are creating stimulator devices to treat damaged muscles using electrical energy generated by the body’s own movement.

Using electricity to heal

The researcher’s findings were published in the journal Advanced Materials. Their goal was to find innovative ways to provide electrical therapy alongside exercise as a way of treating injured tendons. They suspected that the right material would provide a new, more effective way of treating injuries.

The Cúram device uses a piezoelectric mesh that generates electricity when it is stretched or put under pressure. The researchers created the mesh by using a scaffold of nano-fibres that are one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair.

“Our discovery shows that an electrical charge is produced in the treatment target area – the damaged or injured tendon – when the implanted device is stretched during walking. The potential gamechanger here is like a power switch in a cell – the electrical stimulus turns on tendon-specific regenerative processes in the damaged tendon,” said Marc Fernandez, who carried out the principal research of the study.

“We presented an implantable, electrically active device capable of controlling tendon regeneration and healing. Importantly, our research improved the therapeutic performance of the device by enhancing its structure, piezoelectric characteristics and biological compatibility.

“We also evaluated the individual influence of mechanical, structural, and electrical cues on tendon cell function and were able to show that bioelectric cues contribute significantly in promoting tendon repair.”

‘One of the most exciting parts of our study is that these implantable devices may be tailored to individual patients or disorders’

The researchers showed their device’s impact by removing 5mm of tendon from a rat to simulate an acute tendon injury. These rats then performed exercise on a treadmill to observe the processes of tissue repair when treated with the device. These results demonstrated a significant effect in healing over the course of a few weeks.

Considered alongside other laboratory experiments, the researchers were convinced of the efficacy of their treatment.

Lead researcher on the study Manus Biggs said: “One of the most exciting parts of our study is that these implantable devices may be tailored to individual patients or disorders and may show promise in accelerating the repair of sport-related tendon injuries, particularly in athletes.”

He added that the strategy of combining a device utilising the body as a power source with an ability to generate accelerated tendon healing was a considerable advantage. This was key to the contribution of the research.

“These devices are cost-effective, relatively easy to implant and may pave the way for a whole new class of regenerative electrical therapies,” he concluded.

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news