It is a staple of science fiction to mock sutures as outdated. The technique has, after all, been in use for at least 5,000 years. Surely medicine should have advanced since ancient Egypt. Professor Hossam Haick from the Wolfson department of chemical engineering at the Technion has finally turned science fiction into reality. His lab created a smart, suture-less dressing that not only binds wounds together, but also wards off infection and reports the wound’s condition directly to doctors’ computers. The study was published in Advanced Materials.
Current surgical procedures entail the surgeon cutting the human body, doing what needs to be done, and sewing the wound shut — an invasive procedure that damages surrounding healthy tissue. Some sutures degrade by themselves — or should degrade — as the wound heals. Others need to be manually removed. Dressing is then applied over the wound and medical personnel monitor the wound by removing the dressing to allow observation for signs of infection like swelling, redness, and heat. This procedure is painful to the patient, and disruptive to healing, but it is unavoidable. Working with these methods also means that infection is often discovered late, since it takes time for visible signs to appear and more time for medical staff to come around and see them. In developed countries with good sanitation available, about 20 percent of patients develop infections post-surgery, necessitating additional treatment and extending the recovery time. The figure and consequences are much worse in developing countries.
Prior to beginning a procedure, the dressing — which is very much like a smart Band-Aid — developed by Haick’s lab will be applied to the site of the planned incision. The incision will then be made through it. Following the surgery, the two ends of the wound will be brought together, and within three seconds the dressing will bind itself together, holding the wound closed, similarly to sutures. From then, the dressing will be continuously monitoring the wound, tracking the healing process, checking for signs of infection like changes in temperature, pH, and glucose levels, and report to the medical personnel’s smartphones or other devices. The dressing will also itself release antibiotics onto the wound area, preventing infection.
Most people discard their late-night cinema-inspired ideas. Not Haick, who, the very next day after his Eureka moment, was researching and making plans. The first publication about a self-healing sensor came in 2015. At that time, the sensor needed almost 24 hours to repair itself. By 2020, sensors were healing in under a minute, but while they had multiple applications, they were not yet biocompatible, that is, not usable in contact with skin and blood. Creating a polymer that would be both biocompatible and self-healing was the next step, and one that was achieved by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Ning Tang.
The new polymer is structured like a molecular zipper, made from sulfur and nitrogen: the surgeon’s scalpel opens it; then pressed together, it closes and holds fast. Integrated carbon nanotubes provide electric conductivity and the integration of the sensor array. In experiments, wounds closed with the smart dressing healed as fast as those closed with sutures and showed reduced rates of infection.
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