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Mending the Heart

Introducing Jonathan Freedhoff, M.D.


August 1, 1999
Dressing up Bandages
Bioengineering adds a splice of life
by Meredith Phillips

In the past, most bandages have had a pretty straightforward job description: Act as a barrier to keep a wound clean, covered and cushioned. If a bandage does these simple things, the body can usually take responsibility for the task at hand--fixing the damage. But advances in biotechnology and design are making it such that bandages are taking more of an active role in healing, to the point where some will almost do the job for you.

Take, for instance, the Genetically Engineered Biological Bandage, known more simply as the GEBB. Dr. Daniel Smith, Ph.D, a Chemistry professor at the University of Akron and other researchers there have used genetic engineering to stimulate the production of growth factors in skin cells harvested from skin cells of living humans.

Growth factors are building proteins that repair blood vessels and provide the structure for skin tissue. They're secreted by most cells, and are a natural part of the healing process. For some time, researchers had been aware that extra growth factors can help the healing process. The problem was how to get them to work--not only do growth factors have a brief life-span, but scientists couldn't figure out how to mimic the body's system of release.

Smith and colleagues have designed a bandage with living cells inside. The cells produce growth factors at levels slightly higher than the rate that a healthy human body does. The growth factors are released through the bandage's thin membrane, jump-starting the wound-repair process.

Smith says the bandage, which produces a steady stream of growth factors for three to five days, is intended for use in diabetic patients (who often heal slower because their growth factors tend to be destroyed at an unusually high rate), and for patients suffering from bedsores.

The GEBB is now undergoing animal testing, and awaiting further funding. But once the technology is perfected, the bandages themselves will be inexpensive to produce--once on the market, Smith estimates that the bandages will sell for $4-$5 apiece.

Another discovery on the high-tech healing scene is a bandage impregnated with clotting agents.

Because bleeding is such a common cause of death, the United States Army and the American Red Cross have teamed up to create a bandage that may help reduce blood loss by up to 85 percent. It contains plasma proteins that, like growth factors, exist naturally in the body.

These clotting agents are freeze-dried, then distributed onto a four-inch square piece of material. When the bandage comes into contact with moisture, the backing dissolves and the clotting agents are activated. One protein gets platelets to flock to the wound, and another protein binds to the platelets, forming clots and scabs.

This clotting bandage will be undergoing FDA evaluation for somewhere between three and five years before it is used on the battlefield, and for use in civilian emergencies. In the meantime, the Navy is said to be controlling bleeding its own way--using a certain algae as a barrier to blood cells that encourages the body to form its own clots.

Bandages: they may be a barrier to fuzz and dirt, but certainly not to new technologies.