Tufts Researchers Seek to Speed Wound Healing

With a $16 million DARPA grant, scientists will collaborate with two other universities to develop technology for improving healing of serious wounds
Closeup of frog embryo tissue. With $16 million DARPA grant, Tufts scientists collaborate with two other universities to develop technology for improving healing of serious wounds
Researchers hope to use a flexible enhanced bandage to control the electrochemical environment of the wound and promote healing. Here, innervation controlled by bioelectric properties of tissue. Photo: Douglas Blackiston/Allen Discovery Center at Tufts
February 27, 2020

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Hard-to-heal wounds, such as those caused by explosions, are a major problem for military personnel. Likewise, chronic wounds, such as diabetic ulcers, afflict large numbers of patients. In the United States alone, Medicare costs for wounds amount to over $28 billion annually, according to a recent study.

To help boost recovery options, Tufts University researchers have teamed up with colleagues at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) and the University of California at Davis to develop technology for improving the healing of serious wounds. Their work is being funded by the recent award of a $16 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The research teams will use a combination of approaches involving small electronic devices that attach to wounds, machine learning, and regenerative medicine, all with the goal of achieving precise control over the physiological processes involved in wound healing.

As part of the efforts, scientists at Tufts will study the role bioelectric signals play in modifying the behavior of key cell types, such as neurons and immune system cells, seeking to improve wound healing and the regenerative response.

The collaboration between the teams was initiated by Michael Levin, A92, Vannevar Bush Professor of Biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts who specializes in both artificial intelligence and developmental biology. Levin’s lab has done pioneering work on how cells in the body form bioelectric patterns and networks for communication that guide developmental and regenerative processes.

Levin contacted Marco Rolandi, principal investigator and associate professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering in UCSC’s Baskin School of Engineering after reading a review article Rolandi had written in Advanced Science.

“The article showed an ingenious and state-of-the-art approach to controlling the ionic environment, which could be used to create different bioelectric spatial patterns,” said Levin. “I thought it should be possible to use this approach to create and modify bioelectric cues for cells and tissues during development and regeneration.”

The idea is to use a flexible enhanced bandage to deliver ions to control the electrochemical environment of the wound and small molecules and growth factors to promote healing, while at the same time monitoring the physiological processes in the wound using optical, electrical and chemical sensors.

An artificial intelligence system would take input from the sensors, assess the state of the wound, and deliver appropriate stimuli to speed the healing process. The device would also give doctors a user-friendly interface for remote sensing of the wound status and a menu of therapeutic options.