From Seashore to Surgical Suite: Medicine Learns From Mollusks

29100_web…Well, maybe not mollusks, but actually mussels, those black bivalves better known for their culinary attributes (and especially delicious when prepared with white wine and garlic).

Anyone who has tried to pry shellfish from rocks at surfs-edge has likely marveled at the strength of the hold-fasts securing the creatures against the forces of ocean surf, tides and river currents. Now researchers Ka Yee Lee, Niels Holten-Andersen and their associates at the University of Chicago have submitted a patent for a synthetic version of this evolutionary novelty. Potential health applications for the new gel include use as a surgical adhesive, or cement for bonding implants.

What makes this substance novel? A unique chemical structure allows it to self-assemble in harsh, wet conditions within minutes, forming an extremely strong, flexible bond. When the bond breaks, it has the ability to self-heal when the bond breaks. Additional unique attributes include the ability to manipulate the substance's attributes by changing ph (acidity or alkalinity). In fact, this offers the capability to custom tune the stiffness and strength of the gel. Though it may be years before it sees, this is the type of innovative technology that’s interesting on a number of levels: scientists developing solutions to real world problems in health care through their observations of creatures in the wild. Its also an example of bench sciences with practical applications, other advances that fall in this category include radiation-free hi-res imaging, parafin-based timing devices built into home health tests, and smart bandages that detect and alert wearers to infections in wounds. This new advance was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Could this type of technological innovation also encourage preservation of natural habitats under the assumption that they harbor unrealized business and technology solutions?

Photo credit: Tara Fadenrecht, Niels Holten-Andersen