The lowly sandcastle worm spends its time building tube-shaped homes out of small bits of sand and shell, all held together by a glue it produces. University of Utah bioengineer Russell Stewart describes, somewhat humorously, how the worm grabs pieces, adds glue, then “puts it onto the end of the tube and holds it there for about 25 seconds, wiggling it a little to see if the glue is set, and then it lets go.”
The sandcastle worm’s glue stays strong in its wet environment.
Now, Stewart and colleagues at the University of Utah have created a synthetic version of the glue and are hopeful it will one day have medical applications. But right now the “first-generation prototype” of the synthetic glue performs only 37 percent as well commercial superglue. So what’s the draw?
Unlike most glues, which weaken when wet, the sandcastle worm’s glue stays strong in its wet environment. University of Utah bioengineer Patrick Tresco explains, “Most current adhesives do not work when surfaces are wet so they are no good for holding together bone, which is wet and bloody. There is nothing like [the sandcastle worm’s glue] on the market today.”
That could be useful in repairing smaller fractures, such as non-weight-bearing joints or fractures in the face, or assisting rods, pins, and screws in larger fractures. “An adjunctive adhesive could reduce the number or volume of metal fixators while helping maintain accurate alignment of small bone fragments to improve clinical outcomes,” the bioengineers report in Macromolecular Biosciences.
Not only that; the glue could even be a vehicle for administering a variety of drugs to the fracture site—painkillers, growth factors, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicines, or stem cells. This would also be a marked improvement over today’s treatment of fractures.
As the team continues to improve their synthetic recreation of the sandcastle worm’s glue, they hope to make the concoction biodegradable, so that it will eventually be replaced by re-grown bone. They hope to test the glue on animals soon, with possibly human tests in 5 to 10 years.
This wet-environment glue is yet another bit of “biotechnology” from God’s creation that amazes scientists and could have useful new applications—once the engineers perfect their “re-creation”!
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