Though doctors have been patching up tears in heart muscle tissues for many years, the solution is far from perfect. Stitches and staples that work perfectly well in sealing other muscles, do not do as well in wet environments and when subjected to pressure - Both of which are inevitable around the heart. Now there may be a perfect solution - super glue!
This of course is not the kind you would find at the local hardware store, but one invented by a team of doctors and engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston Children's hospital and Brigham and Women's hospital. As is the case with many groundbreaking medical breakthroughs, the researchers looked to nature for inspiration. In this case it was the slimy slugs that easily attach themselves to wet surfaces without losing their adhesion, that helped provide the spark!
As you can imagine, creating something similar was not easy. The polymer had to be flexible yet strong enough to withstand the pressure of a beating heart. Then there was the issue of it being able to maintain its adhesive properties whilst being immersed in blood. Additionally, it also had to be biocompatible, so that the human body would not reject it.
It has taken a few years, but it appears that the team led by Brigham and Women's, Jenny Karp, may have come up with a solution. In a paper they published in the January 10th edition of Science Translation Medicine, they unveiled the Hydrophobic light-activated adhesive (HLAA) - the first super-glue for humans. The polymer is flexible and will harden and create a watertight seal in a mere 5 seconds, when exposed to Ultra Violet light. But most importantly, it is completely biocompatible. So much so, that the researchers envision that over time, cells will be able to grow into the material of the super-glue patch and hopefully, heal the heart forever.
HLAA is still in the early stages of testing and has thus far been used only to treat pigs with tears in their hearts. However, the results are very encouraging. The super-glue seemed to be able to hold its own despite the high pressure of blood running through the organs, but more importantly, the animals experienced a complete recovery. Of course, humans are a little more complicated. Thanks to our longer lifespan, the HLAA adhesive would have to be capable of sealing the tear or hole for decades, not a few years or months.
HLAA is currently undergoing more testing and if all goes well, will probably be made available to doctors by Paris-based bio-tech start-up Gecko Biomedical, within two to three years. The best part is that if successful, this amazing glue will not only heal broken hearts, but also, other organs and body parts! In just a few years, it may be common for surgeons to ditch the stitch and just reach out for their super-glue!