Medical Gel: Suture of the Future?

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Traumatic injuries are the 6th leading cause of death globally, taking  5 million lives each year (or 10% of all deaths) with major blood loss usually being the primary cause. These include gun and knife wounds, and motor collisions. The phrase “pronounced dead at the scene” is all too common. However, recent developments in biomedical engineering have created 2 types of ‘medical gel’ that can seal wounds rapidly, keeping blood inside the body and stabilising the patient until proper treatment can be applied. These groundbreaking inventions, from opposite ends of the earth, could significantly reduce the number of deaths from traumatic injuries, and could soon be an indispensable tool found in ambulances and first aid kits worldwide. 

Emergency medicine could, in the near future, be making extensive use of ‘Vetigel’, invented by Joe Landolina of Suneris Inc. when he was a student at NYU. This product uses smart biomaterials to work with the body to help it rebuild skin tissue when injured. In the words of Landolina himself (who invented it with the intention that it would be used by soldiers in battle), when an artery is hit by, for example, a bullet, the bleeding is so traumatic that it can kill in 3 minutes; the average time for a medic to stabilise such a wound is 5 minutes with constant applied pressure, not counting the time it would take for a medic to actually reach the injured person. Vetigel can stop the bleeding from even the most severe traumatic injuries, producing a very fast clot in 10 seconds. After a few minutes the gel can then be removed.

It works by utilising plant-based polymer pieces that reassemble onto wounds, where they will arrange like LEGO blocks into the local tissue and promote fibre production. This works to clot the breaches in the skin. Vetigel can accomplish this by working with a collection of molecules in the body called the extracellular matrix (ECM). All bodily cells sit in, and have their normal functions maintained by, the ECM. Like a rainforest, it provides an ideal habitat and home for numerous types of cells, changing in places to fit their differing requirements. When the body is wounded, healing is primarily focused on rebuilding this very complex structure; indeed, scars on the body from previous injuries are just poorly reformed ECM. Current wound-healing products only work on 2D principles, which don’t completely fit in with the complex 3D structure of the ECM. This means that traditional products only partially stitch up wounds until follow-up treatments can be done, which can risk leaving ugly marks on the skin. Vetigel on the other hand can work with the 3D matrix to patch up wounds, and it can additionally reassemble in different ways based on the surrounding environment; meaning it can work ANYWHERE on the body, from the skin to the liver. The product has been approved for testing on animals, with the aim of eventually seeing it applied to humans. If testing succeeds and Vetigel is marketed, it will no doubt become a battlefield lifesaver and the Band-Aid of the future.

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Meanwhile, across the ocean from New York, biomedical engineers at the University of Sydney have invented MeTro; an elastic glue that can seal wounds in one minute. It works upon application to an injury, where a degrading enzyme in the glue is activated with UV light to form a seal. MeTro is made from a natural protein found in human tissue and can be used on internal organs (unlike current products which only work to seal the skin and prevent blood loss). Like Vetigel, MeTro promotes the healing of tissue and returns it to normal function in half the time that it would take stitches and staples to fix the same wound. Its elastic properties make it ideal for hard-to-reach trauma injuries on internal organs that need to expand and relax as part of their normal functioning, like the heart or lungs. The glue lasts several months and degrades naturally in the body once it has done its job, leaving no toxic residue and negating the need for follow-up surgery. It has currently finished a round of successful testing on rodents and pigs, and is soon to be applied to humans for eventual widespread usage.

While the extinction of traditional gauze bandages may seem to be a far off development, the invention of these two products; Vetigel and MeTro undoubtedly have the potential to fundamentally change the way emergency medicine operates. In our lifetimes, we could see paramedics at the scene of car accidents simply whip a tube of gel out of their bags and stabilise a patient in seconds before racing to the hospital, their jobs much simper and quicker. Vetigel containers (with an uncanny resemblance to toothpaste tubes) could find themselves in the cupboards of households worldwide, and getting hold of them could just involve a trip down to the local supermarket. If injuries could be sealed and lives saved in seconds by medical gels which leave no trace of their work and have zero complications, then the future of A&E medicine looks very bright.

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