Mainstream modern medicine centers on using pharmaceuticals to make chemical or molecular changes inside the body to treat disease; however, recent breakthroughs in the control of forces at small scales have opened up a new treatment idea: using physical force to kickstart helpful changes inside cells. This idea is referred to as “mechanoceuticals.”
A gel-like material containing tiny magnetic particles could be used to manage chronic pain from disease or injury, demonstrating the promising use of biomechanical forces that push and pull on cells to treat disease.
Small magnetic particles inside the gel control cell proteins that respond to mechanical stimulation and that control the flow of certain ions. These proteins are on the cell’s membrane and play a role in the sensations of touch and pain.
By exploiting neural network homeostasis — the idea of returning a biological system to a stable state — it is possible to lessen the signals of pain through the nervous system. Ultimately, this could lead to new ways to provide therapeutic pain relief.
To make the magnetized gel, researchers started with a polymer (hyaluronic acid) — a gel-like material found naturally in the spinal cord and the brain that helps provide structural support to cells in those parts of the body. The material is also produced artificially and used in cosmetics and beauty products as a filler and moisture barrier. Tiny magnetic particles were placed into the biocompatible gel. Next, a type of primary neural cell — dorsal root ganglion neurons — was grown in the gel. A magnetic field was used to generate a “pulling” force on the particles that was transmitted through the gel to the embedded cells.
The magnetically induced mechanical forces led to an increase in calcium ions in the neurons. This influx of ions indicates that the neurons responded to the forces. By increasing the force steadily over time, the neurons adapted to the continuous stimulation by reducing the signals for pain. The magnetic gel could be tailored with different biomaterials for therapies for cardiac and muscle disorders. These types of biomaterials could also be used in scientific studies to emulate concussions or other traumatic events where cells in the body are impacted by significant physical forces.