Move over pharmaceuticals – the emerging field of electroceuticals could soon offer a more targeted, drug-free treatment for chronic illnesses.
Chances are when illness strikes, you take some kind of pill or shot to feel better. Whether it’s to lessen the effects of the common cold or treat a more serious illness like diabetes or heart disease, pharmaceuticals are a regular part of our lives.
But advances in materials science and manufacturing techniques could make trips to your local chemist much rarer as we develop drug-free treatments.
“While pharmaceutical drugs have revolutionised the treatment of a multitude of conditions, we also know that there are definite side effects, as we can’t control or limit the delivery of the drug to a specific area – we flood the body,” said Distinguished Professor Gordon Wallace, Director of the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IRPI) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES).
Engineers at the University of Wollongong are collaborating with surgeons at the University of Texas at Dallas to develop materials that can provide more targeted treatment.
An emerging field called electroceuticals, where electrical stimulation is used to modify the behaviour of tissues and organs affected by illness, shows promise
“Over the past five years, we have taken our research into the world of electroceuticals with the plan to utilise our new material developments and additive manufacturing techniques to develop implantable structures that can monitor, maintain and restore function in neural tissues,” Wallace said.
One of the biggest barriers is finding electrode materials that can be safely implanted in the body. The usual materials like metal are too inflexible and can damage tissues.
Implantable electrodes are meant to heal, not hurt, so the team set about creating a new body-friendly material that combines the electrical properties of an electrode with the mechanical properties of a suture.
The result is a fibre called a ‘sutrode’. The ultrathin fibre is spun from graphene using wet spinning fabrication techniques. It’s half the diameter of a human hair, strong, flexible and maintains its electrical properties, according to the developers. The fibres are also stiff enough to penetrate soft tissues, yet flexible enough to accomodate for micro-movements once implanted.
According to Wallace, harnessing graphene’s unique mechanical, electrical and biological properties opens a world of possibilities for this new material.
“We’ve long held a vision that graphene could be used to enable better electrical communication within the body, and the sutrode has shown that this is possible,” Wallace said.
Surgeons are also excited about the prospect of electroceuticals. Professor Mario Romero-Ortega from the University of Texas at Dallas called this recent development a “pretty big deal”.
“The sutrode provides unprecedented spatial control in the electrical stimulation of nerves, which is crucial in effectively stimulating specific nerves, as well as unprecedented sensitivity in recording these signals,” he said.
Romero-Ortega added that being able to tap into the ways vital organs communicate with one another will allow surgeons to ‘hack’ the signals from a diseased organ and adjust its neural signals to mimic those of a healthy organ.
According to the developers, this has implications for monitoring and treating cardiac rhythms, hypertension, obesity, epilepsy and more. Wallace said the team is now in talks with clinicians to discuss applications for the sutrode.
“Can it be used to help damaged nerves reconnect, or help nerves and muscles better communicate?,” Wallace hypothesised.
“Imagine being able to compare nerve communications in a healthy body with those in a body that experiences epileptic seizures, and then use electrical stimulation via the sutrode to treat the condition.
“We need to keep exploring the unknown, take risks and be brave. If we can come this far in 24 months, imagine what can be achieved in another year’s time, and another year after that.”