The burgeoning field of bioinspiration has seen a new generation of scientists in Massachusetts using nature’s blueprints to create breakthrough medical technologies.

One of the sector’s leading lights is Jeffrey Karp, a bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His Karp Lab at BWH is located near Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is also an affiliate faculty member. The lab employs around 25 staff, with a focus on looking to nature for the solutions to scientific and medical problems.

These observations are turned into products with real life applications, such as ongoing work on medical tape inspired by how gecko feet stick to surfaces. Karp Lab has patented a surgical staple with serrated ends like porcupine quills, and is now working on getting it to market. The staples create smaller punctures in the skin and prevent bacteria from entering wounds. Meanwhile, Karp’s new surgical glue inspired by the sticky secretions of marine worms began a human clinical trial in Paris earlier this year. Unlike other surgical glues, it actively repels blood, making it ideal for sealing holes in blood vessels, intestinal tissue, even bone – potentially even being strong enough to bind moving tissue inside major organs, such as the heart.

Also in Massachussetts, Don Ingber’s Wyss Institute at Harvard University in Boston, is a veritable bioinspiration factory. It is home to some 375 full-time staff, who together enjoy more than $600m in grants and philanthropic funding. The lab has co-founded 15 startups in the last three years, and has more than 15,000 patents out for a range of bioinspired technology, from medicine to robotics. Inventions include a self-organising swarm of tiny robots that can be used for tasks such as traffic monitoring and crop pollination, and a mattress that senses the cardio-respiratory functions of infants and can help detect when they are having trouble breathing.

The core life sciences knowledge hub in Massachusetts is a major driver behind bioinspiration’s strength in the state. Meanwhile, the fledgling field is growing: a number of top academic institutions – Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, and Columbia – now offer courses in bioinspired engineering, while organisations such as the World Biomimetic Foundation and the Biomimicry Institute have been established to further the field.

A human trial of Karp’s surgical glue is planned for next year in the US, and he is hopeful that the glue will become available in all hospitals throughout the world, boosting bioinspiration’s profile, particularly in medicine. “I think as others see successful examples, they will be more inclined to give it a try,” Karp told The Guardian. “When I first started out, I didn’t really see bioinspiration as a tool or platform – merely a project. I certainly didn’t realise how powerful it could be.”

(via The Guardian)

Featured image: Professor Jeffrey Karp