Researchers in Boston have developed a medical adhesive they say can seal holes in the heart and other tissue, an advance that could replace the use of staples and sutures to close wounds.

Glue and wound

The glue can seal holes in a beating heart (Karp Laboratory)

The new adhesive, invented by Canadian-born Harvard medical school associate professor Jeffrey Karp, was inspired by the sticking abilities of slugs.

It's both water-resistant and elastic, allowing it to stretch as a beating heart expands and contracts. 

In an interview that aired Saturday on CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks, Karp tells host Bob McDonald that the glue only becomes active when ultraviolet light shines on it, so surgeons can more accurately bind the adhesive exactly where needed.

A biodegradable adhesive in the body offers advantages over metal-based staples or sutures, he added.

“Sutures and staples really are not mechanically similar to the tissues in the body, so they can induce stress on the tissue over time,” said Karp, who is also a co-director of the Center for Regenerative Therapeutics at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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Jeffrey Karp (Courtesy Jeffrey Karp)

“This is a material that’s made from glycerol and sebacic acid, both of which exist in the body and can be readily metabolized,” he said. “What happens over time is that this material will degrade. Cells will invade into it and on top of it, and ideally the hole will remain closed and the patient won’t require further operations.”

Researchers from Boston Children’s, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped to develop the nontoxic substance.

The adhesive has been tested successfully on the hearts of pigs and rats, and on the carotid artery of a pig. The researchers hope the product will be on the market within the next two to three years.

Listen to the entire interview by clicking the embedded audio player.