bizarre, human conditions, medicine, technology

Using Electricity to Heal Wounds

When we get a cut, or a small bruise, the healing process may seem simple — our body knows how to seal up the cut, and repair the bruised tissue over time — but there’s actually a lot that goes into fixing up an injury. For example, cells have to move to the right location, communicate with each other about how to do this, and appropriately divide to make more cells. One surprising player in this process is electricity.

Epithelial cells stained nucleus
The movement of epithelial cells, like the ones shown here (with DNA in green and filaments at the edge of the cells in red), has been recently shown to be controllable using an electric field. (Image credit: John Schmidt)

It’s (amazingly) been known for over a century that an injured area of the body has cells that move relative to an electric field — a response known as galvanotaxis or electrotaxis. However, there have been limited studies on how an electric field can be used to make a group of cells move in a desired way. But just earlier this week a paper was published showing that electric fields can indeed be used to carefully control how a layer of cells migrates. The implications for such a technique are huge — better control over the direction in which cells move would likely help us more easily create tissues and organs in laboratories that could be used in healing wounds (making so-called “smart bandages”) and in organ transplants.

The researchers specifically used single layers (monolayers) of epithelial cells in their experiments. Epithelial cells are an important cell type (one of the four basic types that make up the human body) — these cells essentially cover the entire body and line other surfaces throughout it. By stimulating epithelial cell monolayers with about 5 volts per centimeter (0.3 milliamps per millimeter) using direct current (DC), the researchers could control how the cells migrated as a group. The cells could specifically be made to quickly perform a “U-turn,” proceed unchecked when hitting up against an obstacle, come together or move apart, and undergo other fine-tuned movements as a unified monolayer.

So while it’s easy for any specialist to get tunnel vision when it comes to their investigations (e.g., biologists don’t typically play around with electricity), this study should help remind us of the importance of exploring areas outside of our normal comfort zone, and the great potential benefits of multidisciplinary collaborations.

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