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The BBC's Robin Aitken
"This could be the key to new adhesives with important medical applications"
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Tuesday, 29 August, 2000, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Snail slime 'could mend bones'
It is hoped snail mucus could be used to mend bones
By the BBC's Robin Aitken

Researchers have discovered unusual properties in the mucus secreted by giant African land snails which they believe might have important applications in medical science.

It could lead to a new treatment for broken bones.

The team led by Professor Christopher Viney at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh university, found that the snails' slime contains unusual crystals of Calcite - a commonly occurring mineral.

Prof Viney: Possible medical benefits
They noticed that under certain conditions the slime dries and quickly hardens to form the animals' epiphragm - the covering across the opening of the shell seen when the snails go into periods of deep rest.

Professor Viney, who has studied mucus from slugs, thinks the material could prove useful in the treatment of bone fractures or certain operations like hip replacements.

He said of his research: "We've already established that slug slime, which many people would think of as a very simple, if messy substance, is in fact a complex material.

Nature is full of solutions looking for problems to solve

Professor Viney
Now thanks to Edinburgh Zoo providing us with access to their giant land snails we could have a clue to the way materials become mineralised in nature, a question many scientists are interested in.

In the longer term this could point the way to the development of a bone cement based on a natural process involving inorganic crystals in an organic matrix; a biologically compatible material which would form quickly and dry quickly."

Crystalline in the mucus viewed under a microscope
He added: "Nature is full of solutions looking for problems to solve".

Mr David Nunn, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Guy's Hospital, London, believes the snail slime could be useful.

He said: "What we would look for in any innovative substance of this kind is not necessarily some form of adhesive holding the bones together because we already have reasonably satisfactory means of doing that.

"But if we had some means of accelerating bone healing, or inducing bone healing in those circumstances where the natural healing process has not achieved the end we want then, yes, we would be interested in such a thing."

Professor Viney was helped in his work by a sixteen year old high school student, Mairi Struthers of Wishaw, who collected mucus from land snails housed at Edinburgh Zoo.

Mairi was involved through a four week project funded by a Nuffield Science Bursary and said she wasn't at all put off by working with snail slime

She said: "I chose this particular project because it involved working with animals."

Professor Viney stressed that, possible medical applications for the slime are at the moment conjecture.

He said further research was necessary to test the feasibility of the ideas.

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