BERKELEY (KPIX) — Scientists took a close look at how mussels attach themselves to submarine surfaces and came up with a medical breakthrough — a surgical glue that could help the save the lives of some of our most vulnerable patients.

Our journey starts inside the kitchen at the French Bistro Plouf, located in San Francisco’s Financial District

Over the hot stove, executive Chef Mark Papedis whips up a dish of mussels.

“It’s our number one thing,” explained Papedis.

Now, for medical centers around the nation, these tasty mollusks may serve up more than just a satisfying meal.

“It was very surprising. It was a wonderful insight,” said medical doctor Michael Harrison of UCSF.

These shellfish have inspired bio-engineers at UC Berkeley to design a new kind of glue: one that will stick and stay stuck completely underwater.

And that’s going to help fetuses in utero.

“It’s really exciting to think we may have an opportunity to improve lives or even save lives,” explained bio-engineer Professor Phillip Messersmith. Professor Messermith is a professor of bio-engineering and material science and engineering at Cal.

With fetal surgery, doctors operate through a pregnant woman’s uterus to perform a life-saving procedure on her fetus.

But afterwards, the incision can spring a leak of amniotic fluid which can trigger premature birth.

Doctor Harrison pioneered fetal surgery at UCSF Medical Center.

“This is a totally unsolved problem,” said Doctor Harrison.

To date, no medical adhesive exists that can reliably seal the incision.

“And we’ve tried a hundred different ways,” added Doctor Harrison.

Professor Messersmith and his research team heard about the problem and came up with a solution. Messersmith knew how mussels can glue themselves to a surface and stay put, even in pounding surf.

“Mussels have to actually be anchored onto a surface in order to survive,” said Messermith.

They do this by laying down what’s called byssal threads. These threads or tethers are made out of special recipe of proteins. The mussel leg puts the thread onto a surface.

Once in water, the threads anchor the mussel snugly in place, using a kind of super glue.

“The amazing thing is that it makes the glue underwater,” said Sarah Bhattacharjee, a junior in bio-engineering at Cal.

The lab at UC Berkeley under Messersmith’s direction synthesized the protein and made an adhesive..

Using a sausage casing cut in half, the team demonstrated how the mussel super glue works.

“Nature is the expert. As engineers we look to nature to figure out how we can take the things that nature already perfected, and use them in the human world to solve very important challenges,” explained Sally Winkler, a second year Ph.D. student in bio-engineering and also a member of the team.

The glue needs FDA approval before it is used in fetal surgery

But the inspiration is already inspiring other medical doctors and medical school students

“To look and see that it exists in nature, it’s such a perfect way to solve a problem,” said pediatric surgeon Dr. Claire Graves from Columbia University.

“It makes me wonder all these other creatures that I don’t think about — what can that be?” added UCSF medical student Derek Smith.

“Next I see a customer send their mussels back not finished, I’m going to going back out there and say ‘Hey, these are very important here — these can save people’s lives!’,” quipped Chef Papedis.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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