Research Highlights

Mussel bioadhesive inspired surgical protein glue: Future of scarless skin regeneration

2017-05-26 360

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The venerable Leonard Cohen encapsulated humanity’s age-long struggle at romanticizing permanent marks of disfigurement when he wrote “Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.” For a wound to leave a scar, it needs to be significant enough to cause great pain. Scars are thus jagged reminders that memorialize a deeply personal—and quite often painful—time and emotion. It is then only natural that scars have often been associated with strength in overcoming one’s own vulnerability and fragility. However, poetic verbiage cannot change the fact that scars are visible reminders of trauma and pain that affect many people around the world.

Scars form due to ‘abnormal collagen reorganization,’ which means that the skin is unable to repair injuries to itself in neat cross-weave patterns of collagen fibers. Instead, the collagen fibers grow back in parallel groups which produce the distinct clumpy texture of a scar. Scientists have discovered that a skin protein called decorin helps reduce scarring by facilitating collagen arrangement. Unfortunately, decorin is difficult to synthesize in quantities required for clinical usage.

Professor Hyung Joon Cha and his team from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Pohang University of Science and Technology have utilized their world-renowned expertise in mussel-derived bioadhesives to develop an elegant solution to scarring by successfully synthesizing a simpler version of decorin. This achievement has been published in the world-renowned Biomaterials.

The team created a ‘decorin glue’ by combining a small section of decorin with mussel ‘gloop’ and a collagen-binding molecule, and tested it on rats. After 11 days, 99 percent of the wounds on the rats treated with the glue were closed. By day 28, the test group’s wounds were completely healed with almost no visible scarring. In comparison, the control group’s wounds not only healed at a slower rate but by day 28 were left with large purple scars. Further analysis showed that the healed skin retained the original cross-weave patterned collagen fibers, and even developed oil glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, and other structures not present in scars.

Professor Cha notes that rat skin is different from human skin in that it is looser and tend to heal better, so it is not yet clear how well the glue will work on people. The team is currently planning to test the glue on pig skin, which is much more similar in structure to human skin.

This research was supported by the Marine Biomaterials Research Center grant from Marine Biotechnology Program of the Korea Institute of Marine Science & Technology Promotion funded by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, Korea.