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UMass-Lowell Professors Seek Bandages that Heal

By Used with permission from Mass High Tech. By Arthur Bright

Professors at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell are harnessing the natural healing power of cells to develop “smart” bandages that dramatically accelerate the healing of injuries.

Professor Susan Braunhut of the department of biological sciences and professor Kenneth Marx of the Center for Intelligent Biomaterials (CIB) and the department of chemistry at UMass Lowell, have found they can cultivate and store the proteins, or “growth factors,” that cells use to heal themselves. Those growth factors can then be applied to wounds, and have doubled the rate of healing in tests on mice.

“The value is that we have exploited nature’s best way of storing the growth factors and have learned a way to selectively release the growth factor for a particular type of injury,” Braunhut said.

The professors grew cells in a normal tissue culture medium, but on a surface that functions as a battery terminal. As the cells grew, they developed a nest of proteins beneath them. The nest, or “matrix,” anchors the cells to the surface and serves as a repository for growth factors that the cells produce.

“Cells, when they make the matrix, enrich it with what they don’t want to have to synthesize later but want available immediately,” Braunhut said. “Cells produce different growth factors and deposit them in the matrix they build.”

After a few days of growth, the professors chemically removed the cells, leaving behind the matrix, enriched with a mixture of growth factors, on the terminal. By briefly applying a negative potential to the terminal, they found that the matrix would release growth factors.

Moreover, by changing the degree of potential applied, they could control which type of growth factors are released. Different types of growth factors help heal different types of injuries, including lacerations, burns and toxins.

“Some growth factors are good for certain things and bad for others. We’d like to be able to design customized bandages,” Braunhut said. “When you have a burn you’d take a particular bandage out and for a cut, a different bandage. The difference between the bandages is the growth factor (they contain).”

An added feature of the matrix is that growth factors stored there have a much longer half-life and are more potent than if those proteins were manufactured in a factory. As such, the matrix can be stored for long periods of time until needed.

Braunhut and Marx envision placing the matrix and terminal within gauze bandages for practical use. When needed, the bandage could be activated, releasing the growth factor from the matrix into the gauze for application to wounds.

“When you cut yourself, you’d remove the bandage and put it into a small device,” Braunhut said. “You put it in position, then very briefly expose it to the potential. It would dispense like tape, and the gauze would be saturated with what came out of the matrix. When slapped on the wound, the gauze would come in contact and apply the specific growth factor.”

The possibility of quicker, more specialized healing has many potential uses, such as healing injuries and burns. It also could help heal the aged and sufferers of diabetes. And it’s drawn the attention and funding of the government for battlefield purposes.

“We got a grant from DARPA,” Marx said. “They recognized it as really cutting-edge, providing a solution to problems they’re interested in ߞ; battle-ready, field-ready solutions.”

After the mice studies are finished, the professors will test on pigs, whose skin is more like human skin. Once those studies are complete, they intend to partner with a private company to license the technology and get FDA approval.

“Getting funds (for human trials) is a challenge for us,” Marx said. “We’ve talked to some smaller players, and they’ve encouraged us to go talk to the big players in the industry.”

Braunhut and Marx are happy with the results they’ve seen so far and have just begun to publicize their findings.

“The work’s going extremely well,” Braunhut said. “It’s been very well received, and we’re very excited about it.”