Partnering with Porcupines: MIT Researchers Seek to Improve Medical Tools

by Amy Marcott on January 2, 2013 · 0 comments

in Health, In the News, Research, Science

Guest blogger: Monica Kelly

Photo: Robbie's Photo Art/Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo: Robbie’s Photo Art/Flickr Creative Commons.

Anyone who encounters a North American porcupine would be wise to turn and run in the other direction, but researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital are getting up close and personal with these critters in the name of medical innovation. A study released in the December issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) describes how these scientists believe the structure of the porcupine quill could be replicated to improve medical needles and adhesives.

Researchers discovered that the tips of porcupine quills are covered with numerous barbs that both facilitate the penetration of the skin and inhibit removal once inserted. A barbed quill requires approximately 50 percent less force than an un-barbed quill, and 60-70 percent less force than a standard medical needle to penetrate the skin’s surface. This discovery has pointed researchers on a path to creating a new medical needle that more efficiently and less painfully breaks the skin.

But needles are not the only medical tools that could be improved thanks to the results of this study. According to MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer ScD ’74, the senior author of the study, “With further research, biomaterials modeled on porcupine quills could provide a new class of adhesive materials.”

Adhesives such as medical superglue, sutures, and stitches are critical to the surgery recovery process, and stronger alternatives could lead to fewer post-op complications. Thus, these researchers are now using this new information about Mother Nature’s porcupine design to develop more effective, biodegradable medical adhesives that will safely disintegrate as the body heals.

Perhaps the porcupine is not the enemy after all.

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