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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

'Nature's Band-Aid': UVM Researchers Use Seaweed To Heal Lung Injuries

Martin LaBar via Flickr
Slimy seaweed contains an excellent material for patching the slippery lung.

Injuries to the human lung can be life-threatening, and also very difficult to treat. When there's a hole that punctures the lung, some sealants exist to patch it, but breathing in and out means air is moving around, and keeping that patch in place is tricky to say the least.

But now an innovative natural approach, using something you find in the ocean and even on your sushi — seaweed — is offering a promising new treatment for lung injuries. A seed grant from the University of Vermont, along with another from the Department of Defense, is driving this approach forward.

The new lung patch is made by extracting certain structures from seaweed, modifying them chemically and then making a solution that can be spun into a very thin film.

“It's sort of like a contact lens except it's an elastic contact lens,” says Rachel Oldinski, a professor of engineering, at the University of Vermont.

“The cool part about this contact lens is that one side is slippery. So when you put it on the lung and your lung is able to still lubricate against your chest wall. The other side of that patch, though, sticks to the lung so it covers the whole of the site of injury where the air is leaking out.”

“And so it adheres to that lung and it forms a Band-Aid.”

Filling A Hole

Currently, there’s only one FDA approved treatment for lung injuries, and it is approved only for very limited spectrum of use, says Dr. Daniel Weiss. It’s an entirely different chemical, and it’s designed for patients who need part of the lung removed either from cancer or other traumas. This material can be utilized to help the wound healing.

“What it’s not approved for, what it’s not been studied for, is the wider range of lung diseases, emphysema, fibrosis, trauma — if you're in a car accident and you collapse your lung ... the only available product doesn't cover any of that stuff,” says Weiss.

“So the new slimy material, the seaweed based material, is incredibly exciting because it has potential applications for this wide range of conditions.”

Nature’s Band-Aid

Oldinski says another advantage of using a seaweed-based material is that it’s a renewable, naturally sourced product.

“Through safe chemistry we're able to manipulate the mechanical properties [of the seaweed] so that they’re comparable to these synthetic materials that are oil-based, petroleum-based.”

Oldinski says she and Weiss have already received interest from surgeons and others in using the new material.

“The key here is to find a company or to find individuals that can support the scale-up,” says Oldinski. “And that can easily be done by a medical device company that does this sort of thing.”

Weiss says they have a strong case for obtaining FDA approval for the new product.

“The compounds that are derived from the sea we are already widely used in other industries, so in cosmetic, food and other medical applications. So there's a very strong track record of safety, and there's a very strong precedent with the FDA in utilizing this type of compound.”

Weiss says he anticipates that he and Oldinski could potentially be able to approach the FDA in a few short years.  

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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