Inspired by the sticky substance spiders use to catch prey, MIT engineers designed a double-sided tape that can rapidly seal tissues together. This adhesive may eventually be used in place of surgical sutures.

“There are over 230 million major surgeries all around the world per year, and many of them require sutures to close the wound, which can actually cause stress on the tissues and can cause infections, pain, and scars. We are proposing a fundamentally different approach to sealing tissue,” says Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.

The double-sided tape can also be used to attach implantable medical devices to tissues, including the heart, the researchers showed. In addition, it works much faster than tissue glues, which usually take several minutes to bind tightly and can drip onto other parts of the body.

Forming a tight seal between tissues is considered to be very difficult because water on the surface of the tissues interferes with adhesion. Existing tissue glues diffuse adhesive molecules through the water between two tissue surfaces to bind them together, but this process can take several minutes or even longer.

The MIT team wanted to come up with something that would work much faster. Zhao’s group had previously developed other novel adhesives, including a hydrogel superglue that provides tougher adhesion than the sticky materials that occur in nature, such as those that mussels and barnacles use to cling to ships and rocks.

To create a double-sided tape that could rapidly join two wet surfaces together, the team drew inspiration from the natural world — specifically, the sticky material that spiders use to capture their prey in wet conditions. This spider glue includes charged polysaccharides that can absorb water from the surface of an insect almost instantaneously, clearing off a small dry patch that the glue can adhere to.

To mimic this with an engineered adhesive, the researchers designed a material that first absorbs water from wet tissues and then rapidly binds two tissues together. For water absorption, they used polyacrylic acid, a very absorbent material that is used in diapers. As soon as the tape is applied, it sucks up water, allowing the polyacrylic acid to quickly form weak hydrogen bonds with both tissues.

These hydrogen bonds and other weak interactions temporarily hold the tape and tissues in place while chemical groups called NHS esters, which the researchers embedded in the polyacrylic acid, form much stronger bonds, called covalent bonds, with proteins in the tissue. This takes about five seconds.

To make their tape tough enough to last inside the body, the researchers incorporated either gelatin or chitosan (a hard polysaccharide found in insect shells). These polymers allow the adhesive to hold its shape. Depending on the application that the tape is being used for, the researchers can control how fast it breaks down inside the body by varying the ingredients that go into it. Gelatin tends to break down within a few days or weeks in the human body, while chitosan lasts longer.