Anyone who lives near the ocean is familiar with the sight of shellfish clinging to rocks. They know how tightly those shellfish are attached. Now, some scientists from the Atlantic coast state of North Carolina think the sticky substances that shellfish use on the beach could help doctors in the operating room.
That's because when a person has surgery, doctors usually close the incisions using thread, or sutures, made of natural or artificial silk
"And sutures are fine for many, many applications, but they can cause tissue damage," says Roger Narayan from the biomedical engineering program at the University of North Carolina.
Narayan says scientists have been looking for adhesives that would be safe to use on people instead of sutures. And Narayan's been looking at an adhesive made by shellfish - namely, the Chesapeake Bay blue mussels.
These shellfish use proteins to secure themselves to underwater surfaces. Narayan and other scientists have been experimenting with using these proteins to patch up wounds.
When tried on humans they work well and they don't create an adverse reaction. But Narayan would like them to work a little better.
"The work that we have pursued in particular involves trying to improve the adhesive properties of these materials by adding iron in a controlled manner," he says.
It turns out that by adding iron, the scientists found they could increase the reactions between these proteins, so that they essentially provide better adhesion.
"They become stickier," Narayan says.
He says these enhanced shellfish glues could be especially valuable for repairing incisions in places too small to sew or in places where doctors don't want to create a scar - like the eye.
And the best way to apply this adhesive? Narayan says for that, he's looking at computer technology - namely ink-jet printers.
"These essentially rely on either heat, or you apply a pressure in a cartridge to the ink, and it comes out in a controlled manner," he says.
Narayan says the existing technology could be adapted to apply small amounts of glue onto skin.
"And the advantage of that if this is applied to surgery is that you could put the adhesive exactly where it's needed, and so you wouldn't cause irritation or inflammation by putting this in regions where it's not needed," he says. "You'd have a faster joining technique between tissues and perhaps even also better cosmetic results."
Narayan says the shellfish glues are already used in human medicine and ink-jet technology is widely available. He estimates a combination of the two could find its way into practice within a few years. His research is published in the Journal of Biomedical Materials Research B: Applied Biomaterials.