What Designers of Next-Generation Surgical Clamps Can Learn from the Remora Fish

March 18, 2013 – 8:57 am

A 3-D rapid prototype of an enlarged lamella is shown. On the table is mineralised tissue within a remora adhesive disk.

The remora has a unique way of bonding with sharks. Unlike other fish that obey their biological instincts and choose flight when a shark is nearby, the remora swims right up to the predator and clamps itself to its skin. It’s a smart stratagem: the remora not only staves off shark attacks, since the host can’t get at it and other sharks are unlikely to come sniffing around, but it gets free transportation and swim-through dining (sharks are notoriously sloppy eaters, allowing the remora to scavenge victuals when the shark sinks its teeth into a kill). All of this is known marine science. What was not well understood until researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology investigated is how the remora’s adhesive system functions. They notably discovered that the the fish adheres passively, meaning it does not have to exert any additional effort to maintain the attachment. This discovery could lead to the development of a synthetic material that improves on some of the fish’s adhesive properties, according to researcher Allison Mercer. Bandages that are truly ouch- and residue-free as well as surgical clamps are among the potential medical applications.

A press release from the university describes the method of adhesion: The remora’s suction plate is surrounded by a thick, fleshy lip of connective tissue that creates the seal between the remora and its host. The lip encloses rows of plate-like structures called lamellae, from which perpendicular rows of tooth-like structures called spinules emerge. The intricate skeletal structure enables efficient attachment to surfaces including sharks, sea turtles, whales and even boats. Unlike other suction-cup type systems, says GTRI Senior Research Engineer Jason Nadler, “the remora’s attachment mechanism is not reliant on smooth surfaces and it can be detached without damaging the host.” The medical benefits are clear.

The remora fish is but one more example of potential breakthrough technologies in medical adhesives that come from the marine environment. Dive deeper into this topic by reading about research into oysters as a basis for the development of wet-setting adhesives or the use of sandcastle worms as building blocks for a medical super glue.

Norbert Sparrow

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