Chronic wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers and burns, can be very difficult to heal. This can result in pain, infection, or worse. Proteins known as growth factors have been shown to help such wounds heal, although purifying these proteins can be pricey, and they don’t last very long once applied to a wound. There is now hope, however, in a nanometer-sized drug that its creators are describing as “robotic.”

The drug is a genetically-engineered protein, consisting of elastin-like peptides and keratinocyte growth factor. It was created by a team of scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harvard Medical School and others in the U.S. and Japan. They call it “robotic” because like a robot, it responds to its environment by carrying out a specific activity – when exposed to heat, dozens of the growth factors will fold together, forming a nanoparticle that is over 200 times smaller than a single hair.

This characteristic makes purification of the protein much easier, and thus a lot cheaper to produce than other growth factors. It is also better able at remaining on wound sites.

So far, the drug has been applied in a topical ointment to wounds on diabetic mice, where it caused a dramatic increase in the rate of healing. Human clinical trials should follow in the future, once the drug has been further tested and refined.

The research was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.