Bioengineers from UCLA have demonstrated in a newly published study that a gel-like material containing magnetic particles that push and pull on cells can be used to treat chronic pain.
“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 study. “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 bioengineers and researchers used small magnetic particles inside a gel to control cell proteins on a cell’s membrane that respond to mechanical stimulation, and control the flow of certain ions. These proteins play a role in the sensations of touch and pain.
“Our results show that through exploiting ‘neural network homeostasis,’ which is the idea of returning a biological system to a stable state, it is possible to lessen the signals of pain through the nervous system,” said Andy Kah Ping Tay, a recent UCLA doctoral graduate who was the lead author of the study. “Ultimately, this could lead to new ways to provide therapeutic pain relief.”
To make the magnetized gel, they started with a polymer, hyaluronic acid, and a gel-like material found naturally in the spinal cord and the brain, which helps provide structural support to cells in those parts of the body.
The researchers put tiny magnetic particles into the biocompatible gel. Next, they grew a type of primary neural cell — dorsal root ganglion neurons — in the gel.
In laboratory tests, they applied a magnetic field to generate a “pulling” force on the particles, which was transmitted through the gel to the embedded cells.
They found that the magnetically induced mechanical forces led to an increase in calcium ions in the neurons. This influx of ions indicates that the neurons responded to the forces. By increasing the force steadily over time, the researchers found that the neurons adapted to the continuous stimulation by reducing the signals for pain.