Living bioelectronics can sense and heal skin

A collaborative team of scientists and researchers from the University of Chicago, Rutgers University and Columbia University, have for the first time developed a prototype patch of ‘living bioelectronics’ — a combination of living bacterial cells, gel and electronics — that can integrate with living tissue.

The patches are made of sensors, bacterial cells, and a gel made from starch and gelatin. Tests in mice found that the devices could continuously monitor and improve psoriasis-like symptoms, without irritating skin. The researchers hope the principles can also be applied to other parts of the body, such as cardiological or neural stimulation.

Pairing electronics with the human body has always been difficult. Although devices like pacemakers have improved countless lives, they tend to be relatively bulky and rigid, and can cause irritation when it interacts with the body..

The researchers behind the new study who specialize in uncovering the fundamental principles behind how living cells and tissue interact with synthetic materials, have previously invented a tiny pacemaker that can be controlled with light, as well as developed materials that are strong and flexible enough to form the basis of bone implants.

Typically, bioelectronics consist of the electronics part along with a soft layer to make them less irritating to the body. For their work, the researchers added new capabilities by integrating a third layer of living cells.

The final device consisted of three components — a framework of thin, flexible electronic circuit with sensors; an overlay of gel created from tapioca starch and gelatin, which is ultrasoft and mimics the makeup of tissue itself; and finally, tucked into the gel were the living component, several microbes from the species S. epidermidis, a bacteria that naturally lives on the human skin and has been shown to reduce inflammation.

When the device is placed on skin, the bacteria secrete compounds that reduce inflammation, and the sensor monitors the skin for signals like skin temperature and humidity. In tests with mice prone to psoriasis-like skin conditions, there was a significant reduction in symptoms.

Their initial tests ran for a week, but the researchers hope the system — which they call the ABLE platform, for Active Biointegrated Living Electronics — could be used for a half-year or more. And, since the healing effects are provided by microbes, it works as a ‘living drug’ that you do not have to replenish.

In addition to treating psoriasis, the potential application of the system could be extended to patches that speed wound healing on patients with diabetes, effect cardiological or neural stimulation, as well as to treat other tissue and cell types. The researchers said that they were currently evaluating the possibility of commercializing their new technology.

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