Scientists have developed a new dressing to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, like MRSA.

When it comes to proper wound healing protocols, biofilms pose unique challenges to physicians and caregivers alike. According to a 2009 study published in the journal Wound Repair and Regeneration, these colonies of microscopic cells have a two-fold effect: 1) they reduce the efficiency of antibacterial agents and 2) they all but halt the entire wound healing process. Not only that, they’re also quite expensive. A 2004 report published in Wounds estimated that treating biofilm-associated infections costs the U.S. as much as $1 billion annually.

More recently, a group of doctors and scientists have come together to explore a new method of addressing biofilms. Publishing its results in Scientific Reports, a Washington-based research group is combating biofilms with an antibiotic-free wound dressing that utilizes electrochemical stimulation.

A history of electricity

Before moving to the specifics of this groundbreaking study, it’s important to note that experts have tried using electrical stimulation for several decades. In the last several years alone, though, there has been a noticeable uptick in ES research.

A 2013 study published in Diabetic Foot & Ankle successfully implemented ES in 14 out of 16 trials. A 2012 report published in Today’s Wound Clinic noted similar success rates for ES, However, that team explained ES contained several inherent precautions. Specifically, there are several wound types unaffected by ES, and ES can’t implemented on body parts like the pericardial area or phrenic nerve. And while a 2015 study in PLOS One found that ES greatly accelerates wound healing, a 2012 Wounds study noted that more data was needed to establish the long-term risks and benefits of ES. Even after all this time and research, ES is still somewhat of an unknown in the wound care industry.

Yet there is no denying the need for ES-centered therapies, as antibiotic-resistant bacteria has run amok over the last 10 to 15 years. According to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23,000 annual deaths are linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Establishing the basic

What has made the team behind this latest wound care innovation so assured of its benefits? Study co-author Haluk Beyenal, of the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at Washington State University told MD Magazine that most other efforts didn’t have strong fundamentals in place. That is, those other teams simply didn’t understand advanced chemical reactions occurring in ES therapy.

“Many people tried this simple method,” said Beyenal. “Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. We controlled the electrochemical reactions. That’s the reason it works.” Beyenal explained that the team has been conducting this kind of research for years, but has now applied it to actual technology.

Researchers stated they could generate low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide by applying an electrical current to a conductive scaffold. By doing so, they’d create a constant flow of hydrogen peroxide that would then destroy any biofilms. To test the hypothesis, the team applied ES to Acinetobacter baumannii, a bacterial strain known for being hard to treat. The dressing itself was an “e-scaffold” which featured conductive carbon fibers as the basic scaffold. In the span of 24 hours, the team was able to produce enough hydrogen peroxide to decrease the biofilm surface coverage by over 80 percent. When the team tested the same ES method with pig tissue, there was no observable damage to the existing skin sample.

Keeping up the fight

Despite its progress, the WSU team noted that ES research still has a long way to go before it’s more readily utilized. Until that time, doctors and patients alike must still rely on traditional techniques, including antibiotic ointments and specialized dressings.

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