Purdue researchers develop adhesive that could make medical procedures safer

Going through surgery can be tough on the body, with all the cutting, prodding, drilling, sawing, stapling and stitching up.

In addition to stressing the body and causing pain, some procedures damage tissue and increase the chances for infection.

“The ways that we connect tissues after surgery or injury are pretty horrific,” said Jonathan Wilker, professor of inorganic chemistry at Purdue University. “Sutures, staples and screws look like they came out of medieval torture chamber.”

So Wilkins and another Purdue researcher—Julie Liu, associate professor of chemical engineering—are developing a new surgical adhesive they hope will reduce the amount of damage to tissues and skin from stitches and staples.

If successful, the new glue could make millions of medical procedures safer and less damaging.

Creating surgical adhesives is a challenging job. Many adhesives do not work well in wet conditions because water interferes with the adhesive process. There are currently no viable surgical glues that work inside the body, they say.

“We were interested in making a glue that would be better for soft tissue, like skin,” Liu said.

The researchers think they have found a solution, inspired by sea creatures.

Wilker has spent years studying the chemical properties of sea life. Sea creatures such as mussels, barnacles and oysters bond to wet rocks with protein-based adhesives.

“We have been learning how these animals stick, and then developing mimics of their glues,” he said. “We now have several adhesive systems, each with different properties.”

Some of the materials are protein-based and others are made from synthetic polymers. The researchers are developing adhesives that will bond strongly when wet or dry, are non-toxic, mechanically flexible and are biodegradable.

Wilker and Lui joined forces, combining his background in sea creature chemistry and her background in making elastic proteins.

They made a protein that has the characteristics of a chemical group called dopa, an amino acid found in the body with strong adhesive properties.

“That way we’re making a glue that can use this property of the mussel proteins, where they’re able to attach strongly to things in watery conditions,” Liu said.

The two say their product has reached the proof-of-concept stage, but they have a ways to go before they try to commercialize it. They have applied for a patent and are in early talks with companies to see how it might be marketed.

If the product works as designed, it could have a huge market. Purdue estimates that more than 230 million invasive surgeries are performed worldwide each year, and nearly all of them create additional tissue damage from stitches and staples.

And beyond medical applications, the possibilities are broad, from consumer products to construction materials.

“There are all sorts of needs for new adhesives,” Wilker said. “We are working on these problems, too.”

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