University of Utah bioengineers have taken inspiration from sandcastle worms to develop an adhesive that could one day be used to repair shattered bones in knees, other joints and the face.
Sandcastle worms dwell in intertidal surf and build their tube-shaped homes from bits of sand and shell and their own natural superglue.
In tests using cow-bone pieces, the synthetic sea-worm glue, a first-generation prototype, performed 37 per cent as well as commercial superglue.
Russell Stewart, associate professor of bioengineering at the university, expects the synthetic worm-glue to be tested on animals within a year or two, and tested and used on humans in five to 10 years.
The synthetic glue would not be used to repair large fractures such as major leg and arm bones, for which rods, pins and screws are used.
Stewart envisions that it might be used for gluing together small bone fragments in fractured knees, wrists, elbows, ankles and other joints as well as the face and skull.
Stewart said: ‘If a doctor rebuilds a joint with pins and screws, generally weight is kept off that joint until it’s healed.
‘So our goal isn’t to rebuild a weight-bearing joint with glue.
‘It is to hold the pieces together in proper alignment until they heal.’
The synthetic glue can also carry drugs, so it could be used to deliver pain killers, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicines or even stem cells to sites where bone fragments are glued, simultaneously fixing the bone and delivering potent drugs or even genes to the spots where they are needed.
And where cancer now causes pieces of bone to be cut out, the adhesive might be used to firmly attach ‘tissue scaffolds’ to encourage regrowth of the missing bone.
Stewart is seeking to patent the synthetic sea-worm glue so it can be licensed to an outside company for development.
He hopes to make better versions that have more bonding power and are biocompatible and biodegradable.
This scanning electron microscope image shows two glass beads that were glued together by a sandcastle worm as it built its tube-shaped home using the beads, which it was given in the laboratory. Hardened glue is visible between the two beads and also where the beads were detached from other beads. University of Utah bioengineer Russell Stewart synthesised an artificial version of the sea worm’s glue and hopes it can be used to repair shattered joints and facial bones.