When you’re located in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to catch “start-up fever.” The quest to develop something new – a technology, technique, or test – is pervasive, and the atmosphere at Stanford University is encouraging: Everyone is invited to breathe deeply and innovate. But innovation doesn’t always come in shiny, never-been-made-before packages. Sometimes novel solutions can be found discovering new uses for “old” things. I was reminded of this when I researched my article about advances in wound healing for the summer issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.
Hyperbaric chambers are one "old standby" that have a new role in helping heal patients with chronic wounds. With a history dating back to the 1600s, the first chamber was reportedly built in 1834. Inside the chamber, patients are exposed to higher-than-normal concentrations of oxygen, which allows the oxygen to dissolve directly into the bloodstream.
Under regular, room-air conditions, oxygen needs a designated driver – the hemoglobin in red blood cells ferries it around the bloodstream. So hyperbaric chambers help increase oxygen delivery to tissues, above and beyond the typical carrying capacity of red blood cells. That oxygen boost stimulates new blood vessel growth that, in turn, brings more healing factors to the aid of chronic wounds. With this healing effect, hyperbaric chambers are becoming more common in wound care centers. It’s a treatment option that offered at Stanford’s new wound care center when the doors open this fall.
Repurposing "old" drugs for new uses is also becoming more common. Geoffrey Gurtner, MD, a professor of surgery here, found a promising approach to preventing foot ulcers in diabetic patients with a drug that was originally developed to bind excessive levels of iron in the blood. When Gurtner discovered the same drug, called deferoxamine, could also promote healthier skin, he began developing a bandage that could be applied before a wound ever happened. As a bonus, drugs already labelled to treat other diseases may get into clinical trials more quickly than start-from-scratch therapies because the regulatory hurdle of safety trials have often already been cleared.
I’m still eager to see novel therapies developed, such as the stem cell treatments under investigation by Michael Longaker, MD, the director of the Stanford Program in Regenerative Medicine.
But, perhaps, one of the best uses of our technology is finding new possibilities in therapy options that have been around a while.
Freelance science writer Elizabeth Devitt lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. She draws on her first career in veterinary medicine to write about the health of people, animals and the environment. All her writing efforts at the computer are closely supervised by two cats.
Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery, Maggots can help quicken healing, study shows and Stanford researchers reveal how mechanical forces contribute to scarring
Illustration by Harry Campbell