Broken-Hearted by One of Aaron Rodgers’ Broken Bones (Pre-Covid), a Wisconsin PhD Is Developing a Quicker Way to Heal

Video aaron rodgers injury 2017

Before this week’s revelation of his positive Covid-19 test, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hadn’t missed a game since 2017 when he suffered a broken collar bone in a Week 6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers didn’t return until Week 15, two months later.

Most Packers fans were alternately heartbroken or melting down in his absence. An engineering faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, however, took the opportunity to brainstorm a way to help such injured players return faster.

Materials science professor Xudong Wang, whose research interests include biomaterials that can harness electricity to improve bodily function, started down a path that led his team of collaborators to develop a fracture electrostimulation device (FED) that could be inserted via surgery to accelerate the healing of fractures. Then, as a plus, the FED would dissolve and be reabsorbed harmlessly by the body.

“Rodgers,” Wang says, “was the main driver for me to move towards this direction faster.”

This is a very early stage project, but Wang and his fellow researchers published a peer-reviewed paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences back in July showing that rats with the FED recovered from a fracture in just six weeks compared to a control group that needed 10 weeks. Additionally, the bone density and flexural strength—which measures an object’s resistance to bending—were both higher in the stimulation group by 27% and 83%,respectively.Though it is in early stages of development, the FED device held here by professor and Packer fan Xudong Wang would be inserted via surgery to accelerate the healing of fractures and then dissolve on its own.

Wang has previously developed electrostimulation technologies in a hat to help regrow hair and in a bandage to heal wounds. The challenge with bone mending is the direct transmission onto the site. For this project, his team began with a Triboelectric Nanogenerator (TENG), which converts body movement into small amounts of electricity—about four volts. They placed that on poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid), a biodegradable and biocompatible polymer used in a number of FDA-approved products.

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“This device is packaged by a biomaterial so five or six weeks after the bone is completely healed, this device will slowly degrade and you don’t need to do additional surgery to take it out,” Wang says. “So just leave it on and it will degrade and dissolve in the body fluid and goes away because it’s all biocompatible and degradable material.”

Fractures can be devastating injuries for athletes because of the requisite rest time needed for bone to heal naturally. Anything to jumpstart that process would be hugely impactful in pro sports and obviously have a fertile market in public health. Hits such as Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr's takedown of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers on Oct. 15, 2017 are commonplace, and an FED device could revolutionize injury recoveries.

Wang, who earned his Ph.D. in materials science from Georgia Tech, was the lead of 13 authors on the journal paper—a list that included his Wisconsin-Madison colleague Weibo Cai, a professor of radiology and medical physics, as well as medical and engineering peers at multiple institutions in China.

So far, the FED has only been shown to work on the tibias of rats. Wang says a next step might be to test it on larger animals whose physical form and genetics are more closely related to humans. Then, of course, extensive studies would need to be completed before it received FDA approval.

In cases such as the 2017 Rodgers’ injury, the implications of such a device could be substantial, all over the NFL. After theAaron Rodgers' 2017 collarbone injury dragged on for nine weeks into December, depressing impatient Packer fans and inspiring a professor.brutal hit he took from Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, Rodgers underwent surgery that required doctors to insert 13 screws and two plates into his collarbone. It healed slower than the initial six-week timeline, causing Green Bay to collapse and lose eight of its final 11 games. It is feasible that an FED, if available then, might have changed the course of the Packers’ 7-9 season.

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But the concept of biocompatible electrostimulation could also extend beyond the healing of fractures to other therapeutic uses. “This is, I would say, the fundamental of life: bioelectricity,” Wang says. “So I think the impact could be huge for many different ways to help the body recover to normal, to bring more activity to cells, to reactivate the cells for tissue recovery or muscle rebuild.”

Wang says a company has formed to work on the hair growth device, but the FED would need more significant investment—either from federal grants or private funding from entities such as football teams because of its complexity and the necessary regulation for an implantable device.

“In general, this type of technology has a very bright future,” he says. “Certainly, we are very much open to all the possibilities.”