Slug slime might not be the most inspirational thing you can think of. Nevertheless, researchers have drawn inspiration from slug slime’s adhesive and durable abilities to create a medical superglue that could potentially replace stitches and staples.
Conditions like congenital heart defects in children require highly skilled invasive surgery and are made more complicated by the fact that the tissue being operated on is so delicate. For a long time now, scientists have been interested in creating a long lasting medical glue that can replace stitches and staples but without their several drawbacks, including the fact that they can cause trauma to surrounding tissue. Unfortunately, no medical glue has been suitably strong enough to withstand the pressures of blood pumping through the chambers of the heart. That is, until now.
US researchers, citing slugs and their sticky secretions as inspiration, believe they have hit on just such an innovation. In a study published this month in the peer-reviewed medical journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers from a number of institutions including Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, write they have created a type of glue that is viscous and sticky when first applied and then, under ultraviolet light, the glue changes to create a hydrophobic, durable and yet still relatively elastic seal.
The researchers have tested the glue in the laboratory by using pigs as subjects (more on the animal research below), whereby they concentrated on repairing small cuts in the pigs’ arteries. The glue was able to hold even under conditions simulating higher than normal blood pressure. The experiments also showed that the glue was capable of successfully patching relatively large holes in rat hearts.
The results were all very encouraging, and it is hard to overstate how potentially revolutionary a medical superglue like this could be. For instance, its use needn’t be limited to just heart surgery. Potentially it could provide the basis for glues that can be used in emergency or combat situations, to seal open wounds until further medical assistance can be reached. It also has possibilities for innovating a number of other standard medical procedures, replacing staples and stitches for common procedures like closing surface wounds.
Study co-author Prof Jeffrey Karp, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, told BBC News: “We have developed a surgical glue that can be used in open and more invasive procedures and seal dynamic tissues such as blood vessels and the heart, as well as the intestines.
“We think that our glue could augment stitches or staples or possibly replace them.
The major caveat to this study is that, though the tests were on the whole classed as successes, the animals used as “patients” were not followed for very long after the study — just a few hours, in fact, after which the animals were destroyed.
Whether the glue holds up after several hours or even days remains to be tested. Also, because the animals weren’t monitored for very long after application, researchers don’t yet know of any toxicity risks. There’s also a question of whether concentrated ultraviolet exposure will prove a problem in wider use. Also, and as with all animal studies, though animal models have their use for testing very particular things, scientists won’t know about the effect on humans until human trials begin — and that is some way off yet.
That said, researchers believe that, if all goes well, the medical superglue could be on the market within a matter of years, a breakthrough that might mean we have cause to treat slugs with just a little more respect in the future.
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