The researchers noted that burns, diabetic ulcers, caesarean section scars, surgical incisions and simple cuts caused significant pain and their treatment consumed “huge” resources each year.
“We know very little about the mechanics of how wounds heal”
Now, Dr Michael Crichton, a biomedical engineer at Heriot-Watt University, has been awarded £360,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to work on the area.
He and his team are aiming to develop a microsensor that will detect wound healing by monitoring the tiny, microscale mechanical changes that happen to the body’s tissue.
Dr Crichton is working with Dr Jenna Cash, a specialist in wound healing immunology from the University of Edinburgh, on the two-year project.
Discussing the potential of the project, Dr Crichton said that through the research the team wanted to “understand what actually happens in a wound”.
“Lots of research has looked at the biological properties of wounds, but we know very little about the mechanics of how wounds heal, especially at the microscale, which is where changes are happening at sub-hair width scales,” he said.
“We’re working to create a small sensor that can be embedded in a bandage to measure changes in a wound’s properties without interfering with the process.
“The sensor will make small mechanical measurements – much like how a doctor would prod a lump – and will tell us how the tissue is changing, or whether the wound needs a different dressing or treatment,” he said.
“Our work on the immunological response during healing is reflected in mechanical changes”
He added: “At the moment, we judge the progress of wounds on patients’ reports of pain, and how the wound looks to the naked eye of health professionals.
“Our smart sensor will alert the patient and their care team when intervention is needed to make sure the wound heals better, or when it is all progressing nicely under the bandage.”
Meanwhile, Dr Cash said: “This is an innovative, patient-focused research project that addresses the urgent need for us to better understand wounds.
“Our work on the immunological response during healing is reflected in mechanical changes, and anything that combines these has the potential for new therapies in this area,” she said.
While the team is investigating how skin wounds heal, they believe their findings could be applied to other tissues and organs, like monitoring liver or kidney damage or cancers.
Dr Crichton added: “Some tissues and organs have the same structural components as skin, so researchers and practitioners in those areas are likely to take a great interest in our project.”
The project is expected to spark interest from the pharmaceutical industry, where the creams, gels and dressings available for patients and healthcare providers to buy represent a large market.