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Intestinal parasite inspires new medical ‘glue’

A gut-clinging worm with a proboscis that swells has inspired a new approach to healing and protecting wounds normally treated with sutures, staples and adhesive dressings.

Traditional methods for protecting and sealing wounds, such as staples, sutures and adhesive dressings have limitations. Some methods can cause localised tissue damage and infection (staples), allergic reactions (adhesive dressings) and are often difficult and time-consuming to apply. Soft and wet tissues, including wounds affected by bleeding, also make adhesion difficult.

In an attempt to find a better solution, a team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in America, sought inspiration from nature, in particular a parasitic worm – called Pomphorhynchus laevis – which is found in freshwater crustaceans.

The worm has the ability to swell its proboscis allowing it to press microneedles into the intestinal wall of its host. The result creates a strong adhesive bond allowing the worm to cling on.

The team at Brigham have used this principle to create a ‘microneedle patch’ which grafts itself to the damaged area. When the tips of microneedles contact a wet tissue they swell creating a mechanical lock, which minimises tissue damage.

Earlier this month, the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) honoured the Hospital’s work by awarding it the Innovative Product of the Year at the IChemE Awards 2013, which celebrates innovation and excellence in chemical engineering across the world.

IChemE’s chief executive, David Brown, said: “Brigham and Women’s Hospital have managed to combine inspiration from nature with some very clever chemical engineering.

“Their ability to construct a patch that has the flexibility and strength to adhere and protect the affected tissue is very impressive. They have taken the inherent problem of soft and wet tissues and used it to their advantage by creating a graft which reacts and bonds to moisture.

“Strong adhesion strength, ease of removal, reduced risk of infection and excellent penetration depth are all features of the microneedle patch and they fully deserve their IChemE Award”.

The role of chemical engineers in the health and wellbeing sectors is explored in IChemE’s latest technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters. The strategy also includes actions chemical engineers are taking on other global challenges including energy, water and food.


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