This past weekend I was watching the Superbowl, along with millions of North Americans,not to see the Seahawks beat down the Broncos, but for all the must-see million dollar commercials. The one commercial that stood out to me was the Geico commercial with the gecko. The gecko is an interesting creature with many extraordinary traits. I am sure everyone knows how the gecko is able to lose its tail as a defense mechanism and regenerate it, but did you know about its unique ability to scale smooth vertical surfaces and even ceilings? I know this characteristic seems superhuman, but so did flight before it was broken down into its basic engineering principles.
The concept of imitating nature and animals has been around since the dawn of time. I believe one of the most prominent and revolutionary imitations was figuring out how to fly from studying birds. Traveling across nations, oceans and continents would not have been possible if someone hadn’t thought to look at a bird one day and have that eureka moment. Dr. Jeffrey Karp has had a few of these moments.
I was privileged to attend a talk by Dr. Jeffrey Karp, where he explained some of his eureka moments. Dr. Karp is a University of Toronto alum and world-leading bioengineer in the application of biomimicry with biomaterials. Dr. Karp is currently associated with the Cambridge network of institutions – MIT, Harvard, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Regenerative Medicine Center.
Of all the different work that he does, he has two projects that I think are particularly intuitive and groundbreaking. First, there is his gecko-inspired waterproof adhesive. According to ABC news, this biomimetic has shown lots of promise in the world of neonatal adhesive tapes. A video and prototype of the adhesive in action can be found here. To reduce the shear forces on the skin, the researchers focused more on the backing-adhesive interface. More technical details can be found in the original publication here. Karp et al. created an anisotropic interface between the backing and adhesive layer that allows for higher shear forces but a lower peel force. An anisotropic interface refers to it being uni-directional, so the interface and force is strong in that one direction. This special interface makes it easier to remove and does not stress or increase the friction at the adhesive skin interface. Too much friction between the adhesive and skin is what causes the skin to tear or bruise when removing bandages and is of great concern with preemies.
The other invention of his that I think is ingenious is his mimicry of porcupine quills and translating these to swellable microneedles. In his original publication, he clearly showed the capability of barbed quills to strongly attach to skin, then took it one step further when he developed the synthetic microneedle prototype. A swellable material means it works similarly to a hydrogel, which was discussed in my earlier post about biomaterial gels and water. Essentially, once the microneedle tip (made of a swellable biomaterial) penetrates the skin and is exposed to blood plasma, it begins to swell and expand. Once the tip expands it acts like a grappling hook, making it very difficult to remove the entire microneedle. The second-generation microneedle work was published in Nature Communications publication and its advantages to aggressively attach skin grafts, while keeping bacterial infections out, was demonstrated. I’m so fascinated by this, or you may even say attached to the topic, that I will be attending an upcoming talk by another pioneer in the field, Professor Alfred J. Crosby on Bioadhesion.
It is very inspiring to see the work that Dr. Karp and his team are doing. He is one of the few researchers looking at specific problems in the clinic and finding solutions by looking to nature. I admire his work because he has successfully used biomaterials and engineering to solve these problems. If you want to learn more about Dr. Karp and his work, watch this excellent video by BWH here. There was also an article published at SciLogs about his unique and proven strategy of taking “Nature to Clinic”.
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