Repairing Surgical Wounds with a Little Mussel

Tania Pellegrini
5 March 2013

Above : A clump of blue mussels, Mytilus edulis, on a rock (Inductiveload)

Sure, they make a tasty treat for seafood lovers everywhere. But mussels are also making a big splash in the medical field. That’s right, those little bivalved mollusks that stick to rocks and ships' hulls underwater may actually have healing powers. In fact, their natural “stickiness” is what's helping scientists develop alternatives to techniques currently used to close up surgical wounds—stitches, staples, and conventional surgical glues.

Did You Know? The terms “mussel” and “muscle” are both derived from the Latin word musculus (“little mouse”).Mussels make a special type of tough, water-resistant glue that's incredibly sticky. This natural glue is also strong enough to prevent mussels from being washed away by powerful ocean waves. It’s like super glue, only better!

So what makes mussels naturally so sticky? Mussels cling to the surfaces of rocks, ships, and even other mussels using a thin but strong string of protein filaments known as a byssus (or “beard”). The filaments contain large amounts of the amino acid DOPA (dihydroxyphenylalanine), the key ingredient that gives mussels their extraordinary stickiness.

Meanwhile, a major problem encountered by surgeons is that conventional medical adhesives do not work well on wet surfaces, like the tissues inside the body. Think of simple craft glue. You would have a very difficult time using it to glue anything to the inside of an aquarium. Well, surgeons face a similar problem when when trying to glue together two wet tissues inside the body.

Did You Know? The scientific name for the common marine “blue mussel” is Mytilus edulis.The solution to this problem may lie in a new glue that imitates the adhesive power of mussels to help heal wounds in human patients. Currently being developed by scientists, this glue may eventually be used to close tears in blood vessels, repair broken teeth and bones, and attach medical devices to organs. It may also be used in more complicated cases, like repairing a ruptured amniotic sac, the membrane that protects a developing baby. When the amniotic sac is broken, it can result in premature birth or miscarriage.

The new mussel-inspired medical glue offers a number of advantages over conventional stitches and adhesives. It's water-resistant, it's definitely less painful than getting stitched up, and it does not require the affected area to be frozen. It may also cause less scarring and allow faster healing, while minimizing the risk of infection. Time will tell, but when it comes to repairing surgical wounds, all we may need is a little mussel power!

Learn more! Mussel Glue Could Help Repair Birth Defects (Dan Ferber, Science Magazine) Imitating Mussels’ Adhesive Qualities for Medical Uses (Dale McGeehon, Polymer Solutions Newsblog) Mussels' Stickiness May Lead to Smarter Medical Glues (Katherine Gammon, Inside Science News Service) Medicine could harness mussel power (ABC Science) How the Sticking Power of Mussels Can Advance Fetal Surgery (Jenny Marder, PBS Newshour) Mussel-Inspired Materials for Surgical Repair and Drug Delivery (AAAS) Mussels Inspire Innovative New Adhesive for Surgery (Science Daily)

Tania Pellegrini

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