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August 10, 2017

As sticky as superglue, as stretchy as a rubber band: It's slug slime—and it could be the future of stitches

Daily Briefing

    Inspired by slug slime, researchers have developed a new adhesive that could provide an alternative to staples and sutures—and also open new opportunities for wound care, according to a paper in the journal Science.

    Why slugs?

    Most adhesives are either sticky or flexible—not both, according to Harvard University materials scientist Jianyu Li, the lead author of the paper. Super Glue, for instance, is highly adhesive but also rigid and toxic, but flexible materials typically lack adhesive strength, NPR's "Shots" reports.

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    As such, medical glues, which should ideally be both sticky and flexible, often suffer from the compromise: They typically adhere weakly, aren't very flexible, and can't be used in particularly wet conditions, according to Reuters. Blanka Sharma—a biomedical engineer at the University of Florida, who wasn't involved in the new research—characterized existing medical adhesives as "sub-optimal." 

    To try to solve this conundrum, researchers looked to the Arion subfuscus—also known as the European slug—which seeps "an extra-sticky goo" when it gets scared, "Shots" reports. According to Reuters, the slug slime forms bonds on wet surfaces, which makes it durable, and that bond is sealed using a matrix that gives off energy, which makes it especially flexible.

    As Li put it, "The defensive mucus turns out to be very sticky and also very strong and highly stretchable. That kind of inspired us."

    How the man-made product works

    For their product, the researchers used a compound secreted by algae with properties similar to the slug slime to create a flexible gelatin-like patch. Like the slug slime, the product also includes positively charged calcium ions that the researchers said are naturally attracted to the surface of biological tissue, which tend to have negative charges.

    The end result, "Shots" reports, "is as sticky as super glue" and "stretchier than a rubber band."

    According to the researchers, the product adheres strongly to cartilage, organs, and tissue, and was non-toxic to human cells. In addition, the patches adhere effectively to wet surfaces, including bloody, beating pig hearts and bloody pig skin. According to Li, the material adheres to organs as well as cartilage does to bones. 

    For instance, when the researchers used an injectable form of the adhesive to close a hole in a pig heart, the hole remained sealed after being "inflated and deflated tens of thousands of times," Reuters reports. The adhesive also performed as well in repairing a laceration in a rat's liver as haemostat—a surgical tool used to control bleeding—and caused less inflammation than other adhesive products tested.

    The researchers are currently applying for patents, though the product would still need a commercial company to license it and usher it through human trials.  Li and colleagues now are working on a biodegradable version that might disintegrate after the organ heals.

    Implications and clinical potential

    According to Reuters, the researchers envision the material being manufactured in sheets and cut down to the needed size for use, or, for deeper wounds, manufactured as an injectable that can be hardened using ultraviolet light, much like a dental filling.

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    David Mooney, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard and an author on the paper, said, "There are a variety of potential uses and in some settings this could replace sutures and staples, which can cause damage and be difficult to place in certain situations."

    For instance, Sharma pointed out that an adhesive like the one the researchers developed could potentially help repair cartilage, which can't be sutured, or be used to close a hole in an infant's heart. And according to the Washington Post's "To Your Health," the material also be used to deliver slow-release medication.

    "What struck me about this paper is they seem to have developed an elegant approach to a strong adhesion and biocompatibility in a way that can be practically applied in a clinical setting," Sharma said.  "It's interesting to imagine a time where we may be able to, say, glue tissues together without sutures" (Hirschler, Reuters, 7/27; Bichell, "Shots," NPR, 7/27; Gallegos, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 7/27).

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