A research team from Imperial College London, led by Dr Ben Almquist, has developed a new molecule based on so-called traction force-activated payloads (TrAPs) which allow materials to talk to the body‘s natural repair systems and thereby activate healing processes.
“Creatures from sea sponges to humans use cell movement to activate healing. Our approach mimics this by using the different cell varieties in wounds to drive healing,” said Dr Almquist.
Detailed in a paper published the journal Advanced Materials on 7 January 2019, the new work has demonstrated that incorporating TrAPs into existing medical materials could revolutionise the treatment of injuries by opening the door to next-gen materials that actively work with the body's own tissues to encourage healing.
The idea behind the study was to recreate the process, whereby the movement of cells within collagen scaffolds that form in wounds activates dormant proteins behind the healing process, by folding DNA segments into 3D aptamers and making them cling to proteins.
After attaching a customizable “handle” that cells can grab onto on one end, and fastening the opposite end to a scaffold (such as collagen), the researchers have shown that as the cell crawled across the scaffold, they pulled on the TrAPs, which, in turn, activated the healing proteins.
Furthermore, by adjusting the cellular “handle”, Dr Almquist’s team was able to manipulate which type of cells can grab hold and pull, thereby making it possible to tailor the TrAPs to release specific therapeutic proteins.
This technique can also be adapted for use with a variety of different tissues, is fairly simple and inexpensive due to a straightforward production sequence, and could even be deployed in the clinic faster than most new interventions, thanks to the use of aptamers, which have already been proven to be safe in humans.
Commenting on TrAPs in the paper, Dr Almquist said the new method could not only prove useful during “every phase of the healing process”, but could also increase the body’s chances of recovery and have far-reaching uses on many types of wounds, including diabetic foot ulcers, which are currently very hard to treat.
“This technology could serve as a conductor of wound repair, orchestrating different cells over time to work together to heal damaged tissues.”