Pediatric heart surgeons eye sticky, stretchy, slug-inspired adhesive

Arion subfiscus, whose sticky mucus inspired the new surgical adhesive (H. Crisp/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a challenge to develop a surgical adhesive that sticks to wet surfaces and isn’t toxic. But it turns out a certain kind of slug is very good at secreting a sticky mucus that glues fast, apparently as a defense mechanism.

That provided the inspiration for a hydrogel “super” adhesive that could supplant surgical sutures, at least for some operations, and help medical devices stay in place. Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), led by David Mooney, PhD, report that the adhesive bound strongly to a variety of animal tissues, including skin, cartilage, artery, liver and heart.

Nikolay Vasilyev, MD, a coauthor on the paper, is interested in the adhesive’s potential for young patients with congenital heart disease. He is is a research scientist in Cardiac Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital, and led cardiac studies in pig models. 

“The idea was to test adhesion in the beating heart, in the presence of blood and pericardial fluid. We attached the hydrogel and then tried to peel it away, to measure the force required to peel it off,” he says. “The adhesive is tough, but more importantly it is stretchable. We think it could be used to attach drug delivery systems and other medical devices to the surface of the heart, without impeding heart motion.”

Described last week in Science, the adhesive also successfully sealed holes in pigs’ hearts, inflated to simulate beating. In tests at the Wyss Institute, the adhesive stretched with every beat and holes stayed plugged even after more than 10,000 inflations/deflations.

Here, too, Vasilyev envisions a variety of applications in pediatric heart surgery. “We are interested in alternative ways to seal wounds or suture lines, especially in small children and newborns, while allowing the heart to grow,” he says.

Read further coverage in the Washington Post, NPRBBC News and PBS Newshour and Smithsonian.