June 25th (UPI)—— Researchers who developed it said on Friday that an “ultra-thin” inflatable device may help treat the most severe back and leg pains without the need for invasive surgery.
They said the device combines soft robotics manufacturing technology, ultra-thin electronics, and microfluidics — or tiny droplets of fluid — designed to deliver small currents to the spinal cord to disrupt pain signals.
According to researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, it is about the width of a human hair. It is inserted into the epidural space of the spine with a needle and injected in the same area to control the pain during childbirth.
Early tests of the device have shown that when prescription painkillers are not effective in treating severe leg and back pain, it may be an effective treatment, although the device still needs to be evaluated in clinical trials.
The initial discovery of the device was published in the journal Science Advances on Friday.
“Our goal is to create the best of both worlds-a clinically effective device that does not require complicated and risky surgery,” study co-author Christopher Proctor said in a press release.
“This may help bring this life-changing treatment option to more people,” said Proctor, a professor of engineering at the University of Cambridge.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as one in 12 Americans suffer from back pain and do not respond to conventional treatments such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or opioids.
In recent years, researchers have explored the use of spinal cord stimulation devices to transmit small electrical impulses to the nerves in the spine, thereby transmitting pain signals to the brain.
However, according to Proctor and colleagues, some of the most effective devices are bulky and require invasive surgery, while the current smaller options are less effective in treating pain.
For this new device, the researchers combined flexible electronics in the semiconductor industry, tiny microfluidic channels for drug delivery, and deformable materials for soft robots.
The device they completed was only 60 microns thick before implantation-about one-half of an inch.
Once implanted, the device is placed in the epidural space during a surgical procedure performed under the patient under local anesthesia. Then inflate it with water or air to spread out like a miniature air cushion, covering most of the spinal cord.
They said they then used ultra-thin electrodes to connect it to a pulse generator, which could send small electrical pulses to the spinal nerves.
According to the researchers, the device can effectively deliver these pulses on a human cadaver model, and they are working with manufacturers to further develop it.
They hope to start testing on patients within two to three years.
“An effective device that does not require invasive surgery can bring relief to so many people,” co-author Damiano Barone said in a press release.
Barone, professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, said: “The way we make the device means that we can also add additional components-we can add more electrodes or make it larger to increase accuracy to cover a larger area of the spine.”