A Mayo Clinic doctor looked to an unlikely inspiration in nature to solve the basic medical problem of how to stop bleeding in a patient whose blood does not clot well.

After years of research and testing, the end result is a gray, briny “paste” that has been proven to stop bleeding within 15 seconds in preclinical animal tests.

“The key technology behind all of this is how to make something stick when the surface is wet,” said Dr. Christoph Nabzdyk. “In our case, we borrowed the idea from the crustacean animal, the barnacle, because they obviously get stuck very solidly to wet, contaminated surfaces.”

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In 2017, Nabzdyk, a Mayo Clinic cardiac anesthesiologist and critical care physician, brought this idea to MIT researchers Dr. Hyunwoo Yuk and Dr. Xuanhe Zhao, who were already studying related issues.

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“They (Yuk and Zhao) are the two main brains behind the core of this invention,” said Nabzdyk.

The trio, along with other MIT and Mayo Clinic researchers, are publishing the results of their work on the patented barnacle-inspired paste in the medical journal “Nature Biomedical Engineering" this week.

Doctors face the daily challenge of trying to control the bleeding of a patient who is on blood thinners or whose blood does not clot well for other reasons. While there are a number of devices and materials currently in use, Nabzdyk explained that they have not been improved in years and simply do not work well to control severe bleeding.

Using the barnacle as an example, he and his team mimicked the two-step process that a barnacle uses to adhere to a surface.

“They have this proteinaceous secretion. One part of that is an oil base, that will repel fluid on the surface of the wound,” he explained. “It's very intuitive to use. You take it in your hand and mold to get the right shape. You apply it. It's like Silly Putty, in a way,”

Christoph Nabzdyk
Christoph NabzdykSubmitted by Mayo Clinic

The new paste does that plus the oil base contains microparticles that connect to one another, when pressure is applied. That quickly creates a tight seal more efficiently than the body could, said Nabzdyk. Plus the sticky, malleable paste can conform to any wound better than a bandage.

The biomaterial is then absorbed by the body over a series of weeks or a solution can be used to remove it, if doctors need access to the wound.

Beside its effectiveness and ease of use, this new paste has other benefits over the current materials used to control bleeding.

The polymers used in the paste are ones that have already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are inexpensive to produce.

“We can theoretically produce this for a fraction of the cost that our competitors can, which is not only good for any company by itself, but it's also good for developing countries or resource-poor environments,” he said. “It's really a very cheap hemostatic agent to produce and at the same time, we think it is very powerful.”

Those are important factors that could give the paste an advantage in the $5 billion market for hemostatic agents.

However, don’t expect doctors to use this paste on patients in the near future. Clinical trials and many other steps that may take years are needed for this “Silly Putty” before it could be used in an operating room.

Still, Nabzdyk and the others who have worked on this project are excited for this first step of publishing in “Nature Biomedical Engineering.”

The research was supported by MIT's Deshpande Center, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Army Research Office, The Zoll Foundation, and the Samsung Scholarship. The technology is protected by a shared patent between MIT and Mayo Clinic.

In addition to Nabzdyk, Yuk and Zhao, other co-authors on the research paper include MIT researchers Dr. Jingjing Wu, Dr. Xinyu Mao, Dr. Claudia Varela, Dr. Ellen Roche plus Dr. Tiffany Sarrafian Griffiths and Dr. Leigh Griffiths of Mayo Clinic.