Northwestern University Develops Alternative To Drugs For Pain Relief

Northwestern University has recently published a study that details a new device which may present an alternative to opioids for pain relief. The study, reported June 30th, details a new device that is implanted near a patient’s nerves. The device cools down nerves and blocks pain signals from transmitting to the brain. 

After an accident or medical procedure results in injury, patients are typically issued several forms of pain relief. These include local injections or various pain relief medications which dull the pain receptors. However, the large-scale provision of these pain relief medications has caused an opioid epidemic resulting in thousands of deaths annually. Researchers at Northwestern University seek to solve this epidemic by developing an alternative to pain relief medication. The result is a soft, miniaturized cooler that hinders nerve conduction via a liquid-to-gas phase transition as a cooling mechanism. 

The design of the new device was inspired by the design of electrical nerve cuffs. However, the electrical wires are replaced by a channel that carries a microliter volume of bioinert coolant. The device will offer real-time temperature feedback control to the patient.The device was developed to consist of water-soluble materials resulting in dissolution as a technique to reduce patient risk and remove the burden of device load without requiring further surgeries. 

In a statement, researcher John A. Rodgers explains how the device works, “The technology reported here exploits mechanisms that have some similarities to those that cause your fingers to feel numb when cold. Our implant allows that effect to be produced in a programmable way, directly and locally to targeted nerves, even those deep within surrounding soft tissues”. 

Previously, cooling therapies and nerve blockers have been tested but none have been successful. These typically involved cooling large areas of tissue, resulting in unwanted tissue damage and inflammation. However, the new device overcomes all previous shortcomings by targeting specific nerves.The device was initially tested in rat models in trials lasting several weeks. The trials displayed the device’s ability to rapidly cool nerves to provide pain relief.