Mussels Hold It Together

February 28, 2013

Eva Gusnowski

You know that gash you got when you fell off of your bike? Yeah, I’m talking about that one that had to get all stitched up and now has those extra dots of scars surrounding it. What if it turns out you didn’t need stitches at all, but you could now get a great adhesive to stick it all together?

Actually, adhesives have been in place for a number of years now to use in place of stitches. While these adhesives work really well, there are a number of limitations to their use. Many synthetic adhesives don’t break down very well and, if they do, they may break down in toxic products. While this isn’t necessarily a big deal if these glues are kept on the surface of our bodies, using these types of adhesives during surgeries to keep internal wound sites closed (which are invariably going to be constantly wet) is quite challenging. But as you can imagine, using a sealant creates a much better seal than simply stitching sites together. So where do we go from here?

There has been a fair amount of research aimed at finding biological adhesives that can be used within the body. Some of these adhesives that are currently used in surgical procedures include a fibrin glue (similar to the fibrin that our own body makes in order to stop bleeds, and which can be broken down internally and has non-toxic breakdown products) and cyanoacrylate adhesives (which are very strong). However these current adhesives also have a number of disadvantages: fibrin glue has poor adhesion, tensile strength and may induce an allergic reaction, while cyanoacrylate degrades very slowly and when it does breakdown, it creates toxic products. Additionally, both of these adhesives must be used in a relatively dry area, limiting their use in surgical wound sites which, of course, can be a bloody disaster. Literally.


In comes the mussel Mytilus edulis. These little buggers make a natural adhesive that allows them to stick to objects and one another harder than an Alien baby sticks to a face. Using the chemical structure of the adhesive made by these mussels, a group of researchers at the University of Texas and Penn State have mimicked the adhesive’s properties to generate a new surgical glue, called injectable citrate-based mussel-inspired bioadhesives (iCMBAs). This adhesive gels and then sets, meaning it can be used within a wet surgical field. When applied to surgical incisions placed into rat skin (sorry little buddies), the iCMBA immediately stemmed the bleeding and kept it in check, unlike sutures that allow some blood to escape from the wound site. iCMBAs promoted better wound healing than sutures, caused only minimal inflammation at the wound site and had much better tensile strength compared to sutures as well as the commonly used fibrin glue. Additionally, the researchers found that after 28 days, no sign of the polymer was left at the wound site, implying that the rats’ bodies completely broke the polymer down. Pretty great stuff.


                                              Mehdizadeh et al., 2012

Thank-you mussels for being so sticky. Fishermen may hate you, but medicine loves you. And everyone who likes to eat mussels. We love you for being both delicious and a medical miracle.




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