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Finely Tuned Electrical Fields Give Wound Healing a Jolt

New research reported in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology (JLB) shows that small electrical currents might activate certain immune cells called macrophages to jumpstart or speed wound healing. This discovery, made by a team of scientists from the United Kingdom, may be of particular interest to those with illnesses, such as diabetes, that may cause wounds to heal slowly or not at all. In some cases, such wounds can even lead to amputation.

“In instances where there is a lack of macrophages present, the application of ‘synthetic’ electric fields using clinical devices would assist the repair process, not only by attracting macrophages to damaged sites to support healing but also by changing their properties to facilitate wound repair and importantly to reduce infection,” said Heather M. Wilson, PhD, from the University of Aberdeen.

Scientists exposed macrophages, originating from human blood, to electrical fields of strength similar to that generated in injured skin. When the current was applied, the scientists found that the macrophages moved in a directed manner and from these studies would be predicted to move to the edge of damaged skin to facilitate healing. Not only did the electrical fields coax macrophages into moving directionally, they also significantly enhanced the ability of macrophages to engulf and digest extracellular particles, an important process called “phagocytosis.” During phagocytosis, macrophages clean the wound site, limit infection, and allow the repair process to proceed. The experiments also showed that electric fields selectively augmented the production of protein modulators associated with the healing process, confirming that macrophages are tuned to respond to naturally generated electrical signals in a manner that boosts their healing ability.

“This new work identifies previously unappreciated opportunities to tune immune system function with electrical fields and has potentially wide-reaching implications for wound repair for a variety of diseases where macrophages play a role, including infectious disease, cancer, and even obesity,” said John Wherry, PhD, deputy editor of JLB.

This article was based on information provided by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.