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Strong and inspiring is not the way you would normally describe a garden slug. But for one group of scientists, that's what garden slugs are. The scientists have created a slime-like material inspired by slugs that might one day be used to heal wounds. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: A common garden slug has a minor super power. It can glue itself to wet surfaces while remaining bendy. And that, says Jianyu Li, is something special.
JIANYU LI: Very sticky and also very strong.
BICHELL: Li is a material scientist with Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He was combing through scientific papers for clues on how to make a better surgical adhesive, something that could repair a delicate organ better than stitches or staples, when he came across a description of the slugs' goo.
LI: So they would secrete a mucus.
BICHELL: When the slug gets scared, it oozes defensive mucus sticky enough that if a bird tried to pry the slug off a leaf, Li says - even a wet leaf - it could stay safely in place, like chewing gum on a shoe.
LI: So that kind of inspired us to create a similar material system.
BICHELL: They ended up creating a gel-like patch using similar ingredients to the mucus. As Li and his colleagues write in the journal Science, the material successfully stuck to bloody, beating pig hearts. It patched holes in rat livers and didn't cause damage to human cells. Li says it's as good at sticking to organs as cartilage is at sticking to bone. Nasim Annabi, a chemical engineer with Northeastern University and Harvard Medical School, says this material stands out.
NASIM ANNABI: Yeah, it's a very interesting paper.
BICHELL: Because with other surgical sealants, there's usually a tradeoff. Either it's really sticky but also rigid and toxic, like super glue, or it's safe and flexible but bad at sticking to wet or bloody surfaces. In some procedures, she says, a good adhesive is really necessary, like in lung surgery. Air can leak out of a stitched-up wound.
ANNABI: So we definitely need to cover the suture with a surgical glue that can stop these leakages.
BICHELL: A material like the one Li developed could really help. But Annabi says it will probably take years of testing before it might be available for use in humans. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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