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The call of the wild: biomimicry and surgical innovation

Surgeons spend hours in the confines of small and sterile spaces: hospitals, clinic rooms, operating theatres, and body cavities. There is a lot to be said for getting outside, most immediately from the perspective of recharging body and soul: 

“Living close to the earth, thinking simply and seeing clearly…”.          The Call of the Wild, Jack London

However, the benefits of being exposed to nature might bring far wider and less obvious dividends. Biomimicry is the design and production of structures and systems that are modelled on, or inspired by, biological entities and processes. To identify a mechanism that has been honed over millennia by evolution, and then to couple it with a current surgical problem, can be a potent combination.   

Researchers in Tarragona in Spain, for instance, are exploring a biomimicry opportunity that may reduce the rate of surgical implant infections. At the nano-scale, cicada wings have extremely sharp needles which destroy and repulse colonisation by gram negative bacteria*. This is inspiring new materials that retard bacterial colonisation – a fundamental problem for surgeons who spend so much of their time implanting foreign bodies of one kind or another –all without recourse for antibiotics or chemical agents. A similar nanoscale ‘spike’ defence has been found on dragonfly wings, with their nano-patterned surface active against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.

Surgeons continue to strive for ever more minimalistic approaches. Indeed, eoSurgical’s very existence reflects the need for improved endoscopic skills learning. Crucially, it is often optics which prove the rate-limiting step in minimally-invasive surgery. Insect eyes are interesting because of mechanisms which allow them to increase the depth and width of their visual field. Their ongoing survival is due to an evolved capability to detect predators coming from all directions, at varying distances, and often at high speed. Whilst we have angled endoscopes with 3D capabilities, and high definition digital video feeds, surgeons could benefit hugely from the advanced optics at the disposal of a humble honeybee. Indeed, such advances could fundamentally alter how we perceive anatomy and pathology; perhaps opening the door to procedures that are currently unfeasible or unimaginable.

One need look no further for reasons to escape the confines of the hospital!

Mark Hughes

Director, eoSurgical

Clinical Lecturer in Neurosurgery, University of Edinburgh

Email: mark.hughes@eosurgical.com

Twitter: @eosurgical

* Pogodin S, et al. Biophysical model of bacterial cell interactions with nanopatterned cicada wing surfaces. Biophys J. 2013. 104: 835-840.