June 14, 2002 John Kao's invention is sort of like a molecular version of Jell-O salad -- it's made from gelatin, turns into a solid and has stuff suspended in it. But, instead of containing marshmallows and chunks of fruit, it has molecules and cells that repair damaged tissue.
By using modified gelatin and polymers, Kao, a University of Wisconsin-Madison pharmaceutical science and biomedical engineering professor, has developed a bandage that contains the molecular structure needed to help cells heal an injury.
According to Kao, the body's cells grow inside three-dimensional scaffolding that also contain nutrients, proteins and other molecules necessary for life. These molecules interact with the cells, sending them signals that control their activities, growth and regeneration. But according to Kao, damage to the scaffolding could threaten cellular activity.
Any bodily injury -- a cut, burn, fracture -- razes the molecular support for cells, thereby disrupting their functions. Treating these injuries, Kao says, requires rebuilding the scaffolding where the cell and molecules interact. "Most bandages don't do this," he explains. "They simply cover up the wound."
Kao's bandage, on the other hand, includes a synthetic version of the same structure cells use to grow and carry out their functions. It can contain new cells, molecules and even drug compounds needed to heal an injury. "The technology attempts to mimic the natural cellular environment," he says. "That's important because it enhances our ability to repair and regenerate damaged tissue."
The product initially takes a liquid form and then solidifies. "Unlike bandages that have to be cut to shape, doctors can pour this solution over an area, even something like a damaged internal organ, and it will set in place," Kao says. Just as Jell-O thickens when refrigerated, Kao's substance turns into a flexible, degradable solid when exposed to ultraviolet light. Because it's highly porous, the bandage can also absorb excess fluids.
By varying the chemistry of the bandage, Kao says they can control the interactions among the molecules and cells, as well as the rate of degradation. "The product is highly versatile depending on the application," he adds. He thinks it might even provide a method for transplanting stem cells to regenerate damaged or diseased tissue.
Kao's bandage is patented by the Wisconsin Research Alumni Foundation, a nonprofit organization that manages the intellectual property in the interest of UW-Madison.
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