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Ben Freedman on Tough Gel Adhesives

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

As a child, Ben Freedman was inspired by the anatomy of human wrists to modify the features on a robot he was building. Now, he is inspired by the slime a slug secretes when it feels threatened to create the next generation of medical-grade adhesives. Learn more about Ben and his work in Biologically Inspired Engineering in this Humans of the Wyss.

What are you working on?

Our team is working to develop the next generation of medical-grade adhesives. This technology is inspired by the slime a slug secretes when it feels threatened. We’re trying to mimic the features of this adhesive slug slime in the lab, without actually using any components of a slug. Instead we’re using hydrogels, which are primarily composed of water and contain a network of ions, sugars, and proteins

What real-world problem does this solve?

The medical adhesives that are currently available are limited due to their low adhesion energy, their incompatibility with wet tissue surfaces and cells, and their low adherence to certain tissues. Surgeons today are left using staples and sutures, which result in increased risk for infection, poor cosmetic outcomes, long surgical times, and scarring. For these reasons, scientists have been searching for a new medical-grade adhesive.

The medical-grade adhesives that we’re developing have some really neat features that would improve upon what is presently available. Our adhesives attach to all sorts of wet tissue surfaces. They can attach to a dynamically moving, beating pig heart. They can also stretch up to twenty times their length. Their stretchiness is a sign of their mechanical “toughness.” The key is that the material can dissipate energy effectively when the interface is stressed. With these advanced properties, our adhesives could replace staples and sutures in a way that would drastically improve tissue healing.

What inspired you to get into this field?

I was always excited about science. When I was little, I built a life-sized robot, but I wanted to modify some of its features. Basically, there were these motors attached to the wrists, but they were fairly rigid, and I didn’t think they were representative enough of the real biomechanics of the human wrist. So, I introduced additional motors that allowed the robot’s wrists to have more degrees of freedom and rotate. That got me excited about bioengineering.

When I started taking biomedical engineering as an undergraduate student, I was exposed to a lot of areas within the field of orthopedics, and the human body in general. I learned about the entire musculoskeletal system and what clinical problems lie there. Many people have injuries that, while not life-threatening, are super debilitating and result in a huge number of lost work days.

After my graduate studies, I had a deep understanding of the limitations in native tissue healing. This motivated me to try and find solutions using biomaterials, which led me to Dave Mooney’s lab and the Wyss.

What excites you the most about your work?

Here, we turn to Nature for inspiration to engineer a new solution to a common medical problem.

Ben Freedman
The tough gel adhesives that Benjamin works on are inspired by the mucus secreted by a Dusky Arion slug. This adhesive is biocompatible, flexible, and can stick to dynamically moving tissues even in the presence of blood. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

A lot of things excite me about it. Of course, the thought of these materials being able to help somebody one day is always exciting. The idea that this work could be translated and have a direct medical impact is great. Then, the fact that it’s very much a platform technology with applications in so many different disease states is very stimulating. We also have many clinical collaborators in the Boston area and the world who are enthusiastic about this technology!

It’s also fun to perform live demonstrations of the technology. The technology is visual and it’s something that people can touch and identify with. The fact that the inspiration for this technology came from slug slime definitely exemplifies the Wyss Institute’s roots in the field of Biologically Inspired Engineering. Here, we turn to Nature for inspiration to engineer a new solution to a common medical problem.

The multidisciplinary team we get to interface with creates a really fun and welcoming environment, which I think makes you enjoy going to the lab every day. My PI, Dave Mooney, is an amazing mentor, and I feel really fortunate about being part of the team. It is truly a privilege to be able to work in a space like this.

What are some challenges that you face?

With every new application for these materials comes a new challenge. Applications for medical-grade adhesives on the surface of the body present different challenges than applications that are internal. We face surgical challenges that relate to the way the material is implanted. We also face design challenges, such as getting the adhesive to mimic a certain tissue. Different disease states also present additional challenges.

Challenges make things exciting because they present opportunities to force yourself to think outside the box and talk to people outside of your field of expertise.

Ben Freedman

These challenges always push us to come up with new, innovative solutions. Challenges make things exciting because they present opportunities to force yourself to think outside the box and talk to people outside of your field of expertise.

How has your previous work shaped your approach to your work today?

This flexible adhesive material adheres to biological tissues (even when wet) without causing toxicity, and can be formed into either sheets or custom shapes. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Biomedical engineering exposes you to a lot of different fields in medicine. I’ve transitioned from my undergraduate years, where I focused on whole-joint human work, to tissue-level work during my PhD, to materials work now. The exposure to these tissues, and the comprehension that I gained through working with tissues directly, has given me a multi-faceted understanding of the healing process. That gives me insight on how one might design materials to best interface in different disease states.

My experiences working closely with various clinicians over the years and even observing surgeries has helped me think practically about the best way to administer and design these materials. It is always a learning process. You are always smarter today that you were yesterday.

When you are not in the lab, how do you like to spend your time?

I enjoy running, playing piano, and I’ve started hiking more. I also like to go sailing.

I’ve been sailing since I was a kid and was even a sailing instructor at one point. There’s actually a lot of physics involved in sailing. A lot of people think it’s just wind that makes the sails go, but it’s actually fluid dynamics. You create lift on the sails and that’s what generates forward motion. Also, the knots you tie on a sailboat are not that different from the knots you tie to suture someone up.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?

This is a really tough question because I really like what I’m doing now. Maybe I’d pursue music, or sailing, or patent law!

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

It’s really exciting. It’s certainly a privilege and I’m really lucky to be a part of it.

It also carries with it a lot of responsibility. We want to make sure we’re doing the best possible science to the highest possible standard. Working on a cutting-edge technology also feels super motivating; our adhesives are definitely something we’re eager to translate and take to the next level.

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