American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

Materials scientists draw inspiration from nature and technology

OCTOBER 23, 2017
Clinical Congress Daily Highlights, Monday Second Edition

What do snail slime, shark teeth, and lizard tails have in common? They’re not ingredients for an ancient witch’s potion, but sources of “bioinspiration” for Jeff M. Karp, PhD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA.

“It’s a way of looking at nature for inspiration. We literally have tens or hundreds of millions of years of research and development happening all around us. When I look at nature, I see solutions and ideas for solving problems.”

Karp’s lab deploys evolution-inspired bioengineering strategies and technologies into the clinic for a wide range of medical issues, from treating atrial septic defects in pediatric hearts to restoring hearing loss.

In snail slime, Karp sees a viscous secretion that has hydrophobic qualities to patch holes in septic pediatric hearts. The regenerative nature of shark teeth and lizard tails were inspiration for the development of a novel stem cell activating biomaterial that is currently being tested in humans for the regeneration of hair cells in hearing loss.

Karp’s research seems to stretch the boundaries of what may be possible in bioengineering. Meanwhile his colleague Roozbeh Ghaffari, PhD, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, literally stretches the boundaries of what’s possible for wearable materials. His lab pioneers the development of soft bioelectronics for non-invasive health-monitoring applications.

“One inspiration for us has been around a new concept called epidermal-based systems. These are based on ideas like temporary tattoos and soft bandages. They have compelling properties: they’re soft, they’re light, they can be made very thin and they can accommodate stretchability.”

The applications for such wearable devices are wide, and touch on a range of physiological areas including monitoring a person’s temperature, their level of hydration, measuring biopotential for electrocardiograms, and even a person’s perspiration rate.

There are still a number of challenges in developing better wearables, including making thinner materials and building systems that allow for adequate power supply and data transfer capabilities. But Ghaffari and his lab are getting closer to wearables that could offer an improved patient experience, improved compliance for certain diagnostics and enhanced signal quality compared with current technology used in sleep studies, neonatal intensive care and other settings.

Both panelists clearly demonstrated the incredible reach of bioengineering and its potential to improve and solve current medical challenges, but as moderator Michael Davis, MD, FACS, stated, it’s just as important for surgeons and physicians to come together and think through the clinical applications for how these new technologies could be deployed.

Additional Information:
The Panel Session, Reconstructing the Body: 3-D, Custom Scaffolds and Stem Cell Therapy, was held October 23 at the 2017 Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons in San Diego, CA. Program, webcast and audio information is available online at

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