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Prickly Porcupine Quills Inspire New Needle Technology

The barbed quills of the North American porcupine could offer insights into new medical technologies and hospital devices.

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--by Julia Haskins A microscopic view of a synthetic porcupine quill.

The Gist

Consider the power of the prickly porcupine. While underrated in the animal kingdom, these creatures' barbs could hold the key to a host of new medical technologies. The study "Microstructured barbs on the North American porcupine quill enable easy tissue penetration and difficult removal," published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on the efficiency of barbed porcupine quills in puncturing tissue and their resilience in, well, staying stuck.

A predator's misfortune is a major step forward for the medical community in terms of inspiring new devices modeled after the porcupine's ingenious quills. 

The Expert Take

The secret to tissue penetration and retraction lies in the North American porcupine's barbed quills. Its 30,000 quills each consist of a black tip with backwards-facing barbs and a smooth white base with scale-like structures. When confronted by predators, the porcupine releases its quills, which easily penetrate the predator's flesh and are difficult to extract.

The penetration process initiates a crack in the tissue at the critical load, at which point the deployed quill punctures the skin. The North American porcupine can not only exert less force than its African counterpart without barbed quills, but it also damages less surrounding tissue, as the stress concentration stretches or tears tissue fiber in a cleaner fashion near the barbs.

The study showed that barbed quills also advanced deeper into muscle than do quills without barbs. Quills with barbs require 54 percent less penetration work and are more difficult to remove. Even an 18 gauge hypodermic needle is no match for the barbed quill in terms of smoothness of insertion and difficulty of removal.

Source and Method 

Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston conducted a series of penetration-retraction tests comparing polyurethane replicas of a barbless control quill, a barbed quill, and a hypodermic needle to find the relative penetration force (the force required for penetration into tissue) and pull out force (the maximum force needed to remove a quill) of the objects. 

The Takeaway

The research team's findings could lead to new mechanical developments in medical technology, especially in the arena of needles. The special barbed structure could become a model for cleaner, more effective injection devices in hospitals. 
 
"Similar to how biomimicry of cockleburs inspired the development of Velcro hook-and-loop fasteners and the gecko is inspiring the development of tape-based tissue adhesives, these findings should serve as the basis for the bio-inspired development of new devices, including needles, for easy penetration with compliant substrates, such as tissue, or microneedles, where effective insertion without de-formation (buckling) is required," the researchers wrote.

They added, "Mimicking the porcupine quill should be useful for biomedical applications, including local anesthesia, abscess drainage, vascular tunneling, and trocar placement, in addition to the development of mechanically interlocking tissue adhesives." 

Other Research

Another study of porcupines, published this year in Materials Science & Engineering examined the composition of the North American porcupine's quills, with a focus on their keratin tissue structure.  
 
Modeling devices after porcupine quills could be the future of medical technology, but their structure isn't perfect. This study, published last year in the same journal, examined the physical structure and strains on North American porcupine quills.
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Tags: Latest Studies & Research , Technology

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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