After a century, adhesive bandages may get a makeover.
In 2020, the Band-Aid — those seemingly flimsy bits of adhesive and cotton found in every medicine cabinet in America — will turn 100 years old.
In that time span, the medical field has grown by leaps and bounds. Penicillin was discovered in 1928, ushering in the era of antibiotic medicine. In 1980, smallpox was eradicated from the earth.
This is all to put in perspective the fact that when you open up your medicine cabinet, the adhesive bandages better known by the brand name Band-Aid, are still very much the same as they were in 1920.
They’re still just bits of adhesive and cotton.
But even the simplest things can’t resist innovation forever. Scientists and doctors have been tinkering at the next step forward in bandage technology, looking for improvements.
In a research article published this month in the journal ACSNANO, we get a glimpse of what the bandage of the future might look like.
Scientists demonstrated that electric fields could be used to facilitate faster wound regeneration and healing in rats. However, the use of electric stimulation in and of itself is not new — it has been studied for several decades as an adjunct therapy for wound healing.
The innovation of this new research is its form: a bandage.
Electric stimulation for wound healing has been hindered in large by the fact that it relies on bulky machinery to generate the electric current, requiring the patient to go through sessions — sometimes 8 hours at a time, typically while sleeping.
This experimental bandage is the opposite of that: it’s flexible and lightweight.
But most revolutionary, it powers itself using just the movements of the human body, similar to how some watches work today.
“We developed this wearable bandage device that can significantly facilitate wound recovery. So, the device is self-powered, self-sustainable without any battery or electric circuit,” Xudong Wang, PhD, an author of the paper and professor of material science and engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Healthline.
“It works based on converting the small mechanical displacement of the surface of the skin and converting it into electric pulses and using the electric pulses to facilitate recovery,” he said.
Consisting of a copper band with electrodes and a nanogenerator, the bandage is attached to the skin where its electric current imitates the body’s own natural endogenous electric field to cause skin regrowth.
Specifically, the fields cause the proliferation of cells known as fibroblasts, which make collagen and guide skin regeneration.
“We really just turned those systems into a wearable small device that you can wear every day. Just like a regular bandage. Portable, affordable, and disposable,” said Wang.
To test the effectiveness of the bandage, the researchers tested their experimental bandage with an electric field against the same wound dressing but without using an electric field.
Even on serious cuts, those which were deep and rectangular (compared with simple linear cut), the rats that received the electric current healed significantly faster. The rectangular cuts closed in just 3 days, compared to the 12 days of the control group.
The results of the experiment are promising, and Wang believes that the combination of electric stimulation with the portability provided by nanogenerators could finally push forward a technology that has been difficult to scale up due to technological limitations.
But other challenges remain as well. Rats aren’t humans, of course.
The technology would first have to be tested on skin that’s more human-like, such as pigs, before eventually going through clinical trials on humans.
All of this will take years — and that assumes that it will work on humans at all.
Dr. Andrew Vardanian, assistant clinical professor at UCLA in the division of plastic surgery and a specialist in scar management, told Healthline that despite some promising studies, electric stimulation therapy for wounds is still not widely used by doctors.
“I would say the majority if not all wound centers would not even use this technology. A. Because I don’t think it exists in a way that could be translated to patients in a wound clinic or a wound healing center per se and B. I don’t think the data really show that it works in that way to invest in it on a larger scale,” he said.
Despite his reservations, Vardanian admits that the potential of such technology is exciting.
“I think that using the nanotech to create the electric energy could be a means of delivering it to wounds that may not otherwise be amenable to it because of the bulky devices and things that might be necessary,” he said.
Particularly for certain kinds of wounds, the promise of a portable electric stimulation device could be a powerful tool.
While simple wounds — say a cut on your finger — will likely heal over time due to the natural processes of the body, more complex or chronic wounds, such as burns or ulcers related to diabetes, will not.
This isn’t the only research being done on bandages or dressings.
Earlier this year, researchers at Northwestern University experimented with a type of liquid to gel dressing, for people with diabetes.
The team found that people with the new type of bandage healed diabetic wounds 33 percent faster.
People with diabetes are also at risk for foot ulcers, which can lead to serious infection, hospitalization, and even amputation. Up to 24 percent of foot ulcers in people with diabetes will require amputation.
Prior studies have shown that electric stimulation for diabetic foot ulcers improved healing. Similarly, burns and the resulting scarring from them could also see potential benefit from this technology.
Experts created an experimental bandage that’s flexible and lightweight. It provides a low electric current using just the movements of the body, similar to how some watches work today.
However for little nicks and scratches, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever need a self-powered nanogenerator bandage — even if they are developed for humans.
By creating a thin barrier between the skin and the outside world, Band-Aids prevent bacteria, fungus, and dirt from causing infection — that’s about it.
So, while the search for the next bandage innovation continues, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Band-Aids last another hundred years.