A Revolution in Healing

On the 100th anniversary of the Band-Aid, Tufts engineer Sameer Sonkusale is working to make “smart” bandages

The science of wound healing goes back to earliest records of civilization. Clay tablets dating back to 2200 BC describe the “three healing gestures”—washing, making the plasters, and bandaging.

Today, the basics of bandaging remain largely unchanged. Skin wounds—cuts, scrapes, punctures and burns—are protected with gauze, held in place by either a cloth wrap or adhesive tape, with the same pragmatic purpose of staunching bleeding and preventing infection.

This month, in fact, marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most ubiquitous and popular iterations of the millennia-old protective approach. The Band-Aid was first test marketed by Johnson & Johnson in 1920. Band-Aids would go on to find a place in medicine cabinets and first-aid kits across the country. 

Small cuts and scrapes will still be protected by Band-Aids and wrapped gauzes for some time to come, but severe and stubborn wounds, which can lead to persistent infections and amputations, need something better. Chronic wounds are a huge problem for diabetics, burn victims, and the elderly, among others—so what does the future of bandaging hold for them?

It could, in fact, see a transformation of the ancient art of bandaging from a passive to a more active role, where the bandage “reads” the wound, reports on its progress in healing, and even administers treatments automatically to speed the healing process.

One can glimpse that future right now at Tufts, where Sameer Sonkusale, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the School of Engineering, leads the Nano Lab. His team is developing “smart” bandages that actively monitor and deliver precisely targeted treatments to chronic wounds, while also keeping the caregiver informed of the patient’s progress. Their prototypes assist the natural healing process by delivering antibiotics, growth factors, and other treatments that support re-growth of tissue.

The new approach to bandages is made possible by flexible electronics—sensors that can track infection, inflammation, and other markers of progress while still being able to conform to the contours of the wound area. Tiny microprocessors on the bandage can process that information and, when needed, trigger the release of drugs and other healing factors by warming up a heat sensitive drug carrier. The patient gets the wound-care treatment they need, exactly when they need it.

While bandages have changed little since the beginnings of medicine, “flexible electronics have made many wearable medical devices possible,” said Sonkusale. “We are simply applying modern technology to an ancient art.”

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