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Mussel-mimicking adhesive polymer shown to be non-toxic to cells

Purdue University researchers have shown that a synthetic version of a high-strength adhesive produced by mussels is non-toxic to living cells, suggesting its potential suitability for surgical and other biomedical applications.

“One long-term goal is to potentially replace sutures and screws owing to the trauma caused from punching holes into healthy tissue. These classic methods to join tissue also concentrate mechanical stresses on the tissues as well as creating sites for infection,” said Jonathan Wilker, a professor of chemistry and materials engineering who helped lead a research team that developed the polymer. “A possibly improved approach would be to use adhesives for connecting tissues.”

In new findings, researchers have shown the polymer, poly[(3,4-dihydroxystyrene)-co-styrene], is non-toxic to cells, said Julie Liu, an associate professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering who co-led the study.

The polymer, which the researchers have named catechol-polystyrene, is designed after a natural protein that mussels produce for sticking to surfaces. The animals extend hair-like fibers that connect to surfaces with a natural adhesive. A synthetic polymer is needed because the natural proteins are not practical for industrial applications.

“We designed this polymer to be a mimic of the natural proteins,” Wilker said. “It can be stronger than Super Glue under some conditions. You can also get the polymer to set completely underwater, which is not too common for most adhesives.”

The researchers tested the polymer with mouse cells called NIH/3T3 fibroblasts. These cells are often used in research to assess toxicity by examining how well cells survive and grow when exposed to new materials.

This schematic shows how cells are cultured onto a synthetic version of a high-strength mussel adhesive that sets underwater
This schematic shows how cells are cultured onto a synthetic version of a high-strength mussel adhesive that sets underwater. The polymer has been shown to be non-toxic to living cells, suggesting its potential suitability for surgical and other biomedical applications
Image: Purdue University – M. Jane Brennan, Heather J. Meredith and Courtney L. Jenkins)