Acute psoriasis on the elbows is an autoimmune incurable dermatological skin disease. Large red, inflamed, flaky rash on the knees. Joints affected by psoriatic arthritis

Acute psoriasis on the elbows is an autoimmune incurable dermatological skin disease. (© SNAB - stock.adobe.com)

CHICAGO — A small sticker-like device that could be worn on the skin to both monitor and treat inflammatory skin diseases like psoriasis is under development. Thanks to innovative research from scientists at the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, and Columbia University, this futuristic concept of “living bioelectronics” is now closer to becoming a reality.

Their innovative invention is called ABLE, which stands for active biointegrated living electronics. What sets ABLE apart from existing bioelectronics is its incorporation of actual living bacteria into the device itself. The specific bacteria used, Staphylococcus epidermidis, is a normal and harmless resident of healthy human skin.

According to the study in the journal Science, the ABLE device consists of a flexible electronic mesh embedded in a specialized hydrogel material. This hydrogel acts as a comfortable interface between the electronics and the skin while also providing an ideal living environment for the S. epidermidis bacteria, which thrive in this hydrogel matrix.

A wafer-thin patch incorporates a flexible electronic circuit, a gel made from tapioca starch and gelatin, and friendly bacteria that help treat skin conditions.
A wafer-thin patch incorporates a flexible electronic circuit, a gel made from tapioca starch and gelatin, and friendly bacteria that help treat skin conditions. (Photo by Jiuyun Shi and Bozhi Tian/University of Chicago)

So how does it work? The electronic components of ABLE can wirelessly record important diagnostic information from the skin, like its electrical impedance, temperature, and moisture levels. In psoriasis, these skin properties are often abnormal compared to healthy skin. By tracking them over time, ABLE provides an objective way to monitor the severity and progression of the disease.

But ABLE does more than just passively monitor your skin. It can also actively treat psoriasis through the action of the living bacteria. S. epidermidis has been shown to help regulate inflammation and promote a healthy skin environment. When the bacteria are released from the ABLE hydrogel onto psoriasis lesions, they get to work modulating the local immune response and encouraging skin healing.

The research team tested the therapeutic potential of ABLE in mice with psoriasis-like skin lesions. Remarkably, after just a few days of wearing the ABLE device, the treated mice showed dramatic improvements in their skin condition that were visible to the naked eye. Further analysis revealed that ABLE treatment reduced skin inflammation, slowed down excessive skin cell growth, and brought the skin-resident bacterial community back into a healthier balance.

Importantly, ABLE also has a built-in safety feature. The electronic components can deliver a small electrical current to the hydrogel when needed, which effectively kills off the bacteria. This disinfection capability provides a way to fully inactivate the bacteria after the treatment is completed before the ABLE device is removed from the skin.

Jiuyun Shi holds a small device he and a team of University of Chicago scientists invented that integrates living cells, gel, and sensors to create “living bioelectronics” to heal skin.
Jiuyun Shi holds a small device he and a team of University of Chicago scientists invented that integrates living cells, gel, and sensors to create “living bioelectronics” to heal skin. (Photo courtesy Jiuyun Shi and Bozhi Tian/University of Chicago)

While still in the preclinical stage, ABLE is a promising glimpse into the future of smart, responsive bioelectronic therapies. It represents an innovative merger of multiple cutting-edge technologies – flexible electronics, engineered living materials, and wireless biosensing. A novel device like ABLE that can continuously monitor disease status and deliver an on-demand living biotherapeutic would be a major upgrade from current treatment options for psoriasis, which often rely on immunosuppressive drugs with side effects.

The modular nature of the ABLE platform also means it could potentially be adapted for other skin diseases beyond just psoriasis, or even inflammatory conditions affecting other body tissues. With further development and clinical testing, this breakthrough bioelectronic technology may one day provide a safe, convenient, and highly effective new way to manage a variety of hard-to-treat diseases by harnessing the power of beneficial bacteria.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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