Getting blisters from breaking in a new pair of shoes isn’t a big deal for many, but a person with diabetes could pay a much bigger price.
Something as benign as a blister can easily become infected, eventually requiring surgery or multiple treatments. At its potential worst, an amputation could be required.
Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois have developed a new device that they hope will not only expedite the healing speed of a wound for diabetes patients but also prevent the need for infection-based operations altogether.
“During head-to-head tests, Northwestern’s bandage healed diabetic wounds 33 percent faster than one of the most popular bandages currently on the market,” explains a recent press release.
The bandage device uses the body’s own healing ability without drugs or other pharmaceutical products.
Researchers hope this means it will make its way through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process more quickly.
“The novelty is that we identified a segment of a protein in skin that is important to wound healing,” explains Guillermo Ameer, leader of the study from Northwestern.
Northwestern medical engineers and research team were able to incorporate this particular protein into an “antioxidant molecule” that essentially turns itself on at body temperature, enabling the body’s ability to rebuild its own tissue and thus heal more quickly.
How the bandage works
When first applied, the bandage is actually in liquid form. It’s applied directly to the wound, where it quickly solidifies into a gel as it reaches body temperature.
This rapid liquid-to-gel process means the bandage can embrace the injury in the exact shape of the wound.
The process of removing the bandage is also a key feature.
Traditional adhesive bandages can actually reopen and hurt a wound when being removed.
However, Northwestern’s bandage is removed gently with a bit of saline, coming off without pulling any skin or other tissue with it.
The need to heal
For people with diabetes, the need for faster healing is twofold.
The first reason is long-term diabetes can lead to loss of feeling in one’s feet and hands, even with well-managed blood sugar levels. This lack of feeling in a patient’s extremities means a small cut or blister can easily go unnoticed and worsen without a patient realizing.
Additionally, higher than normal blood sugar levels create an ideal environment for infection. Even with reasonably well-managed blood sugar levels, a person’s blood sugars will never be as “perfect” as those of someone without diabetes. That means excess glucose builds around nerve endings, slows the rate of blood flow, and prevents proper healing.
“Five years ago, I had a voluntary bunion surgery that did not heal correctly,” explains Rosina-Maria Lucibello, who’s had type 1 diabetes for more than 20 years with well-controlled blood sugar levels. “As a result of the surgery, it created a blister, which then turned into a gaping hole in the outside of my left foot.”
Lucibello told Health line she quickly developed sepsis, a life-threatening infection in her blood. She was placed on a wound VAC to help stimulate the development of new, healthy tissue.
Wound VAC treatment is a device that reduces the pressure around a wound to expedite the healing process, but it’s time consuming and costly.
“Today, I have a small but manageable foot ulcer where that original hole existed. Despite that my blood sugars are in excellent control, my ulcer flares up, especially during warm seasons. I have to be careful,” Lucibello explains.
She’s found one of the most important things she can do to prevent future infections and protect the overall health of her vulnerable feet is to take pictures nearly every day of the affected area.
“I watch for any changes, good or bad. If something looks suspicious, I call the foot doctor immediately,” she said.
Lucibello also notes that today’s traditional bandages are not only expensive but can actually make the condition of her wounds worse by locking in moisture and creating new blisters.
Northwestern’s bandage technology sends signals to the affected cells, “encouraging them to differentiate, migrate, and adhere to one another,” explains the press release.
A particular segment of the protein identified and used in this new technology, called A5G81, is known to be essential in the body’s ability to heal.
To mass produce this particular part of the protein, engineers and researchers were able to recreate it chemically in a laboratory, which means it can be reproduced with relatively low manufacturing costs.
The only comparable product in development, explains Northwestern’s team, is a bandage that has already been shown to increase cancer rates in animal studies.
Researchers say Northwestern’s bandage has proven to have no increased cancer risks or other unwanted side effects.
The next step for this potentially limb-saving and life-saving technology is a larger “pre-clinical” study.