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Research

How Gels Plus Electricity Could One Day Fix You Up Fast

UMD Research Team Develops Alternative to Sutures for Cuts, Tears

By Katie Holland Doyle

illustration of red blood vessels

UMD researchers are studying a way to stop bleeding and seal up tears and cuts in the body with hydrogels. New research shows they stick to tissues securely after an electrical current is applied, and can be safely removed by reversing the process.

Photo by iStock

A doctoral student’s trip to the butcher shop for a cut that even dedicated carnivores usually avoid could be an important step toward treating cuts—not to mention punctures, tears or ruptures—of a more unfortunate kind.

Leah Borden, who studies chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Maryland, was testing how hydrogels—soft flexible polymers with high water content that range from Jell-o to soft contact lenses to the stuff that makes disposable diapers so absorbent—can be used to adhere tissues in the body, many of which are similar to hydrogels.

Borden works in the lab of Srinivasa R. Raghavan, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor who frequently experiments with hydrogels. He suggested she focus on work to help seal or repair blood vessels or other tubes in the body.

What she discovered after the butcher shop excursion was shocking, literally.

“I purchased bovine tissue specifically, cow aorta, sandwiched it together with a non-sticky hydrogel and then applied an electric current,” she said. “To my surprise, the two materials stuck together strongly.”

What’s more, when she reversed this electroadhesive process, the gel was easily removed from the tissue without causing damage if the dressing needs to be adjusted.

Borden was first author on a recent study reporting the findings published in Nature Communications. She and co-authors Raghavan and Ankit Gargava (Ph.D. ’17) wrote that applying 10 volts of DC current for 20 seconds to the gel-aorta “sandwich” resulted in a significantly stronger adhesion between the hydrogel and bovine tissue than the gel without the current. Such electroadhered gel-patches could provide a seal over cuts, or openings, in bovine aorta or intestines, while a gel “sleeve” could rejoin pieces of a severed tissue tube.

Although electroadhesion doesn't work with all tissues or all gels, the process if utilized in surgery could replace expensive, time-consuming sutures, which need to be applied by a medical professional. It could also mean the end of the weak adhesion of surgical glue or failed repairs by techniques such as catherization.

“We’ve had a significant interest in the surgical aspect of this adhesive platform, so we're collaborating with surgeons at the University of Chicago and Children’s National, to name a few, to begin animal trials in the near future,” Borden said.

This process could also have applications in soft robotics, 3D printing, the automotive industry, and beyond, she said.

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