Forget stitches and old-school sutures. The Air Force is funding scientists who are using nano-technology and lasers to seal up wounds at a molecular level.
It might sound like Star Trek tech, but it’s actually the latest in a series of ambitious Pentagon efforts to create faster, more effective methods of treating war-zone injuries.
Last year, the military’s research agency, Darpa, requested proposals for instant injury repair using adult stem cells, and Pentagon scientists are already doing human trials of spray-on skin.
Massachusetts General Hospital researchers Irene Kochevar, Robert Redmond and dermatologist Sandy Tsao are behind the nano-tech project, which has been funded by various agencies within the Department of Defense for eight years. They’ve successfully tried out the nano-sutures in lab experiments and a clinical trial of 31 patients in need of skin incisions.
The process would replace the sutures and staples traditionally used to repair wounded skin. Instead of being sealed up with a needle and thread, a patient’s wound would be coated in a dye, then exposed to green light for 2-3 minutes. The dye absorbs the light and catalyzes molecular bonds between the tissue’s collagen.
The bonds instantly create a seal that’s watertight, which prevents inflammation or risk of infection, and speeds up the formation of scar tissue.
“It’s so simple, but such an improvement on current processes, and that’s what’s really remarkable,” Kochevar told Danger Room. The process uses a hand-held laser device that’s about a foot long and a few inches wide.
Penetrating eye wounds, like shrapnel injuries, could also benefit from a patch version of the treatment. A biological membrane stained with dye would be applied over the eye, and quickly sealed using the laser until a soldier could undergo more intensive surgery.
“We’re so close to these processes being used,” Kochevar said. “But FDA approval is still a real hurdle.”
Next up, the researchers want to try out the procedure in more invasive surgeries and conduct more extensive testing on people, in hopes of fast-tracking war-zone use. They’ve applied for funding to conduct human trials on nerve repair.
“Superficial wound healing is impressive, but a continuous molecular seal of a nerve or in a corneal implant would be a profound leap,” Kochevar said.