Slug-inspired surgical glue patches up broken hearts

It's light-activated, blood repellent, and its sticking power is so strong, it can seal up wounds and stay in place within a beating heart.

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To reduce the invasiveness of surgical procedures, researchers have developed a new glue that can seal up heart defects in seconds -- and it stays tight under pressure. 

Sutures take too much time to stitch, and staples can damage fragile heart tissue. But clinically approved surgical glues that are currently available can’t withstand the force of blood flow within heart chambers and major blood vessels. (You know, the same pressure that causes those arterial spray patterns seen on CSI and Dexter.)

Not to mention, these medical-grade superglues contain toxins, so they’re mainly only used on the skin, Technology Review explains.

This biocompatible new glue -- called hydrophobic light-activated adhesive (HLAA) -- can rapidly attach biodegradable patches in wet, dynamic conditions, like inside a beating heart. It could prove useful for medics on the battlefield as well as surgeons in the emergency room.

"About 40,000 babies are born with congenital heart defects in the United States annually, and those that require treatment are plagued with multiple surgeries to deliver or replace non-degradable implants that do not grow with young patients," says study coauthor Jeffrey Karp of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in a press release

So, Karp and colleagues studied the viscous secretions of slugs and sandcastle worms, IEEE Spectrum reports, to determine how they were able to form stable bonds underwater. The result:

  • HLAA is made of a soft, elastic polymer that allows it to flex and move with the heart. 
  • It’s both waterproof and blood repellent, which means blood won’t interfere with the adhesive action. 
  • Once applied, the liquid goo penetrates tissue, hardens, and locks in place in just five seconds with a brief shine of ultraviolet light. (Yep, a glue that’s light activated!)
  • The polymer physically interdigitates with collagen fibers -- like interlocking fingers -- for maximal adhesion (pictured above). 
  • Since the adhesive patch is biodegradable and biocompatible, nothing foreign or toxic stays in the body.

When the researchers tested the glue on pig hearts, they found that the patch effectively created a watertight seal on holes in the heart and maintained its strong sticking power even in the presence of blood. 

Although tests in humans are needed, these results hint at a practical new tool for tissue repair and for sealing open wounds quickly in trauma. The technology has been licensed to Paris startup Gecko Biomedical. The company expects to bring the adhesive to the market within two to three years.

The work was published in Science Translational Medicine this week. 

Images: Randal McKensie

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