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It was during these experiments that Ellis-Behnke discovered the gel’s ability to stanch bleeding. Incisions had been made in the hamsters’ brains, but when the researchers applied the new material, all residual bleeding suddenly stopped. At first, Ellis-Behnke says, “we thought that we’d actually killed the animals. But the heart was still going.” Indeed, the rodents survived for months, apparently free of negative side effects.
The material has several advantages over current methods for stopping bleeding. It’s faster and easier than cauterization and does not damage tissue. It could protect wounds from the air and supply amino-acid building blocks to growing cells, thereby accelerating healing. Also, within a few weeks the body completely breaks the peptides down, so they need not be removed from the wound, unlike some other blood-stanching agents. The synthetic material also has a long shelf life, which could make it particularly useful in first-aid kits.
The material’s first application will probably come in the operating room. Not only would it stop the bleeding caused by surgical incisions, but it could also form a protective layer over wounds. And since the new material is transparent, surgeons should be able to apply a layer of it and then operate through it. “When you perform surgery, you are constantly suctioning and cleaning the site to be able to see it,” says Ram Chuttani, a gastroenterologist and professor at Harvard Medical School. “But if you can seal it, you can continue to perform the surgery with much clearer vision.” The hope is that surgeons will be able to operate faster, thus reducing complications. The material may also make it possible to perform more procedures in a minimally invasive way by allowing a surgeon to quickly stop bleeding at the end of an endoscope.
Chuttani, who was not involved with the research, cautions that the work is still “very preliminary,” with no tests yet on large animals or humans. But if such tests go well, Ellis-Behnke estimates, the material could be approved for use in humans in three to five years. “I don’t know what the impact is going to be,” he says. “But if we can stop bleeding, we can save a lot of people.” Ellis-Behnke and his colleagues are also continuing to explore the material’s nerve regeneration capabilities. They’re looking for ways to increase the rate of neuronal growth so that doctors can treat larger brain injuries, such as those that can result from stroke. But such a treatment will take at least five to ten years to reach humans, Ellis-Behnke says.
Even without regenerating nerves, the material could save countless lives in surgery or at accident sites. And already, the material’s performance is encouraging research by demonstrating how engineering nanostructures to self-assemble in the body could profoundly improve medicine.