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Searching for a Sticky Solution

Biomimetics

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Surgeons are hoping to trade in staples and stiches for glue. They’re not thinking about the Elmer’s glue most of us used in elementary school. Even the strongest man-made adhesive doesn’t work on wet, slippery surfaces like human organs. But God has placed surprising solutions throughout his creation. Some unassuming creatures produce tenaciously sticky substances naturally. Researchers hope to mimic these materials and create safer surgical procedures.

Gecko

Geckos can cling to ceilings because their feet are covered with millions of nano-sized hairs that branch out into billions of tiny projections called spatulae. The spatulae stick to surfaces somewhat like vinyl window decals stick to a windshield, but at the microscopic level.

With enough spatulae on its foot, even an elephant could stick to a ceiling!

Geckos easily disengage their grip without leaving any residue behind.

Scientists have developed a sticky bandage with a surface that imitates geckos’ spatulae.

This bandage features a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric that allows the pad to adhere easily to wet surfaces—perfect for sticking to wet organs. Once placed over a wound, the bandage is flexible and easy to maneuver, and it dissolves over time, in contrast to current medical glues, which are brittle and cause inflammation.

Porcupine

A porcupine’s coat of 30,000 needle-like quills reminds predators they aren’t in for an easy meal.

Each quill is tipped with microscopic barbs. Their points have tiny, sticky serrations that allow them to slip into flesh less painfully than needles.

A new bandage inspired by porcupine quills will help hold in place the mesh used to repair hernias. Right now, surgeons use staples to hold the mesh in place, but staples penetrate more deeply and cause extended pain long after surgery.

Spiny-Headed Worm

The spiny-headed worm, which lives in fish guts, could help with treating burn victims.

The worm swells once it enters its host’s flesh, anchoring to the gut. Researchers used this same method to develop an adhesive tape consisting of microneedles whose tips swell upon insertion into tissue.

Currently, skin grafts are held down with staples, which increase the risk of infection. This microneedle tape can be placed straight through the graft and adheres to skin immediately.

Sandcastle Worm

Have you ever shattered a bone? Well, thanks to the sandcastle worm, doctors may soon be able to superglue this kind of break back together—if only Humpty Dumpty had been so lucky.

These worms build their tube-like homes by secreting a glue to stick sand particles and shell pieces together. The glue hardens underwater in only thirty seconds.

When working with small particles of bone, using screws is challenging. Sandcastle worm glue would reduce metal hardware in the body and create proper alignment of fractures.

Slugs

It may take it all day to move an inch, but that slimy slug has a superpower.

When it is afraid, it can glue itself to wet surfaces and still remain flexible. The goo that seeps from the slug’s skin is as thick and stretchy as chewing gum.

A Harvard research team used this glue to plug a hole in a pig’s heart. The glue held the hole closed even after the heart was inflated and deflated tens of thousands of times.

Spider

When you rip off a Band-Aid, the sting lasts for only a few seconds because your skin’s surface (epidermis) is tough. But if you were to rip the same bandage off a newborn’s tender skin and weak epidermis, you would cause damage.

Spider silk solves the problem. The silk can stretch up to five times its relaxed length without breaking. By imitating this same idea, scientists created a flexible tape that can be peeled off a wound without damaging the tissue underneath.

Mussels

In the middle of an ocean storm, mussels just sit and watch the waves crashing around them. That’s right. Not even the strongest wind or wave can yank them from a rock.

The secret’s in their secretion. Mussels produce a foam and eject it as thin threads. Then they add a protein coating that turns the material into an adhesive that works even underwater.

In the wet conditions of the amniotic sac, repairing holes is a sticky problem. Mussel-inspired patches easily repair these holes, preventing premature births.

Answers Magazine

January–February 2018

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