Our skin is pretty good at protecting the squishy human body from external danger, so the moment that barrier is compromised with a wound or a cut, a defence system has to kick into action.
But that action often results in scar tissue, since we’re not really capable of regenerating skin cells to their previous condition. Doctors already use various imperfect solutions to try and minimise scarring, but now researchers have come up with a new substance that borrows its healing power from mussels.
When skin tissue is damaged by a deep cut, it repairs itself by quickly filling up the wound with collagen.
This protein is a key ingredient for normal skin tissue, but when it’s growing to cover a wound, the collagen fibres form a scar because they don’t arrange themselves in the same neat cross-weave pattern as they do in skin.
Doctors can do their best to minimise scar tissue from forming, but most of the time there’s little they can do to prevent a scar altogether.
One option to help a wound heal better is to use an adhesive, based on chemicals similar to those found in Super Glue. But not all wounds can be glued shut, chemically-derived skin glue can cause irritation, and it often doesn’t work when you need to keep the wound from drying out.
There’s also a substance called decorin, which helps organise collagen into a neater structure, but it’s expensive stuff, and tricky to produce in large-enough quantities for medical use.
A team of Korean researchers got interested in mussel-based glue because these bivalves have an amazing ability to stick to rocks battered by ocean waves, and surgical glue needs to work well in a wet environment.
Inspired by the mechanisms that decorin uses to target collagen in the skin, scientists from Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea have invented a new scar glue from mussel adhesive protein, combining it with a peptide that binds to collagen.
The researchers tested their new glue on rats, spreading it on deep, 8-millimetre-wide (0.3 inch) wounds, and covering them with plastic to keep the healing environment moist. For comparison, a control group of rats only got plastic covering without the new glue.
The effects of the mussel-based substance were visible in just 10 days. For the test rats, their wounds were 99 percent closed up by day 11, and were fully recovered with very little scarring by day 28.
Meanwhile the control rats were left with visible purple scars, and the healing took longer.
What’s even more impressive is that the rats who received the glue treatment had essentially grown new skin on their wounds, with all the usual features you get in skin but not in scars, such as hair follicles and blood vessels.
The researchers note that was possible because the glue is better at regulating collagen fibre growth as opposed to skin that’s left to its own devices to repair itself.
But as with any medical concept that’s tested on rats, it will be a while before we may see the same amazing results in people, if we do at all.
“Rats have loose skin, whereas we have tight skin, and they tend to heal better and have less scarring than we do,” University of South Australia tissue repair expert Allison Cowin, who wasn’t involved in the study, told New Scientist.
As the next step, the researchers plan to test the mussel glue on pig skin, which is more similar in structure to ours.
For now, we do have some treatments that can minimise scars, such as laser therapy or chemical peels. But the mussel gloop sure looks promising, and we’ll be keeping an eye out for future tests.
The study is due to be published in Biomaterials.