Prof. Jeff Karp and his gecko-inspired band-aid by Melis A. '08
Mimicking nature to create a better surgical adhesive
Update on 8/19/2008: Prof. Jeff Karp has been recognized as one of Technology Review’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35 for 2008.
The metallic blue hue of morpho butterflies, the super water-resistant Lotus leaf, the highly maneuverable fins of the Bluegill sunfish: all of these natural wonders have inspired scientists to innovate. When a group of MIT researchers wanted to create the next and best surgical band-aid, they turned their attention to the gecko.
Geckos can scale smooth walls at a whopping three feet per second, and in last decade scientists have begun to understand how these little lizards can defy gravity. It turns out that gecko feet have millions of little projections, called setae, that split into hundreds of projections shaped like spatulas. Each of these tips can attach to smooth surfaces by taking advantage of intermolecular forces, which are individually relatively weak and unstable but can combine to generate enough force to allow a gecko to hang upside-down from one foot.
The initial discovery of the science behind the gecko’s stickiness (Nature 405, 681-685 (8 June 2000)) got a lot of attention, and people proposed applications like making tape to stick equipment to the space station. But Prof. Jeffrey Karp, an investigator in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, came up with a different application when he happened to come across the Nature paper on a friend’s desk. He decided to create a better surgical adhesive by mimicking the nanotopography of the gecko’s foot using a strong, water-resistant, flexible, and biodegradable polymer. This innovation would be as simple to use as a band-aid, and would be a huge improvement upon current biomedical adhesives like medical-grade crazy glue that causes inflammation and other, less sticky alternatives.
Like all things, this was easier said than done. Two and half years and a million dollars later, Karp and his collaborators had made a new polymer called poly(glycerol-co-sebacate acrylate), created a mold for the polymer using the same processes that are used to make computer chips, utilized some tricks to make the polymer biodegradable and nearly invisible to the immune system, and tested these nifty band-aids on pig intestine in the lab and in the peritoneal cavity of live rats.
Lo and behold, it worked! Karp attributes the success of the gecko adhesive project to a multidisciplinary team that included nanofabrication experts from Draper Laboratory, Surgeons and biocompatibility experts from the Massachusetts General Hospital, and polymer chemists and mechanical engineers at MIT. They’re now working on taking this invention into the clinic, where it can be used to replace stitches and sutures. Since the gecko-inspired adhesive does not require repeated re-alignment of the tissue being patched together, it can reduce the time a patient spends in surgery. Additionally, it can be utilized to connect pieces of the colon in patients with Crohn’s disease, or to patch lungs without worrying about air leaks, or even to deliver drugs to parts of a heart that might have died after a heart attack. If all goes well, this bio-inspired adhesive will be found in a hospital near you in less than five years.
The translation from bench to bedside is what Jeff Karp’s all about. He focuses on attacking big problems and has a strong commitment to developing solutions that will help patients. Prof. Karp knew that he wanted to be a bioengineer in college, and decided to study Chemical Engineering at McGill University in order to have the opportunity to learn and practice problem solving and also leave the door open to many career paths. As an undergrad, he was actively involved with research and even published a paper. After getting a PhD at the University of Toronto, he came to MIT as a postdoctoral researcher to work in the world-renown lab of biomedical engineer and Institute Professor Robert Langer. (We’ve written about him numerous times on these blogs, including Paul’s experiences with working there. How are Langer Lab alums so successful? Karp attributes it to Langer’s inspirational leadership, his freedom of thought, and creativity.)
Like his role-model, Karp strives to train the next generation of bioengineering leaders. As such, he has many undergraduates and high school students working in his lab. He tries to have 5-10 undergrads in the lab at any given time, and this summer he will be mentoring three high school students who will be coming to MIT from all over the country. In fact, he was recognized as MIT’s 2008 UROP Faculty Mentor of the Year! I spoke with one of his UROPs, Shan Tie ‘10, who said she found the lab through the UROP website: “I looked under the project openings and looked for titles that were relevant to my interests and were interesting. I had several interviews with different labs and I finally decided this one because the [Principal Investigator] seemed really personally involved with each project and work itself dealt with techniques I was familiar with and could continue a project.” Since the fall of 2007, she has been studying hydrogel polymers that could be used as micro-environmental sensors.
For all of you who fret about not having research experience, have no fear. Dr. Karp hires freshman very frequently and says that experience is not a limiting factor. In particular, he tries to find students who have motivation, drive, passion, the ability to work in a team (e.g. experience on a sports team), and creativity (e.g. mastery of an instrument). Once students join the lab, he pairs them with a senior scientist and encourages them to develop their own experiments, learn from their failures, and regularly exercise critical thinking.
Karp referred to a friend who called Boston the “Academic Hollywood,” where stars in every field could be found. With three of the top hospitals in the world and some of the best universities, Boston is the perfect place to conduct interdisciplinary research that will change the face of medicine, science, and technology. Projects like the gecko-inspired surgical adhesive are a testament to the strength of the faculty and students at MIT, and you can be a part of it!