Bioengineers at the University of California and Los Angeles (UCLA) have shown some interesting results in the lab to show how chronic pain could be managed through the use of physical forces. Using magnets and magnetic materials around a cell, the researchers manipulated the flow of proteins, and hence, the signaling capability of a cell, to change its state. The repercussions suggest an exciting opportunity to look to new, non-invasive approaches to create chemical change in the body.
“Much of mainstream modern medicine centers on using pharmaceuticals to make chemical or molecular changes inside the body to treat disease,” said Dino Di Carlo, UCLA professor of bioengineering and the principal investigator of the study1.
“However, recent breakthroughs in the control of forces at small scales have opened up a new treatment idea – using physical force to kick-start helpful changes inside cells. There’s a long way to go, but this early work shows this path toward so-called ‘mechanoceuticals’ is a promising one.”
The mechanical gel used in this research was made with a polymer, hyaluronic acid, a gel-like material found naturally in the spinal cord and brain and which helps provide structural support to cells in those parts of the body. It is also made artificially and used in cosmetics and beauty products as a filler and moisture barrier.
The researchers then put tiny magnetic particles into the gel and a grew a neural cell in the gel. In the lab, they applied magnetic fields to pull on the particles which, in turn, controlled cell proteins that respond to mechanical stimulation and control the flow of certain ions.
These proteins are on the cell’s membrane and play a role in the sensations of touch and pain. They found that the mechanical forces thus created lead to an increase in calcium ions.
In simple terms, the formation of ions is the means by which a neuron would transmit signals chemically. Neurons and skeletal muscles rely on chemical signals to generate electrical signals. You can learn more about the ion channel here. Suffice to say, inhibiting or mechanically being able to manage these channels is an aid in pain management, and even in managing other functions of a cell in order to attack disease.
In adapting to the continuous stimulation of the magnetomechanical forces, the neurons reduced the signals for pain. In the study, the team suggested that the magnetic gel could be tailored with different biomaterials for therapies for cardiac and muscle disorders.
These types of biomaterials could also be used in scientific studies to emulate concussions or other traumatic events where cells in the body are impacted by significant physical forces.
Having alternatives to pharmaceutical intervention, more invasive surgical intervention, and other approaches that may create as much damage as healing is all good news. So, yeah, color us excited because we’d like to a Bones McCoy of the future with a Tricorder diagnosing us and then running a magnetic over us and healing us instantly. This is still early lab work but a no-drugs approach to treat our biology is a step in the right direction. Just ask McCoy.
1. Holloway, Julianne L. “A Magnetic Look into Neuromodulation.” Science Translational Medicine 10, no. 447 (June 27, 2018).