A fisheries waste product could soon be helping to heal wounds, thanks to a Department of Chemistry team at the University of Otago.

Researchers are using the bony waste part of squid to develop a new smart gel that could be of significant benefit to the New Zealand economy. Promising early trials have attracted interest from potential manufacturers and a $3.5 million grant from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology's New Economy Research Fund.

The search for the super gel started when Chemistry Professor Brian Robinson and his son, a Wellington ear, nose and throat surgeon, were discussing post-operative complications that patients experience in ENT surgery.

Adhesions are common - sometimes in a third of sinus patients - and often need further surgery to correct. With half a million sinus operations performed each year in the US, and several thousand in New Zealand alone, a device that would help to prevent adhesive scarring would be an invaluable tool.

17_smartgelsRobinson, Professor Jim Simpson and Associate Professor Lyall Hanton's research team accepted the challenge to devise a new type of chitosan-based gel.

Chitosan - derived from chitin in crab shells or squid pens - has a long history of medical use. The Otago group made the chitosan water-soluble and then turned it into a gel by adding oxidised dextran, a starch-like chemical.

Polymer expert Dr Stephen Moratti joined the team and then modified the process to the point where the gel is effectively a new product - one that seems to tick all the medical boxes.

Moratti was delighted to discover that the anti-adhesion gel also had an innate anti-bleeding action. "The problem with developing new gels is that you are never sure if they will have the same properties as the old ones," he says.

"We thought we would have to combine another chemical with the gel to get this property, but it was already there. In this case it delivered everything we wanted. The gel does exactly what we wanted it to do."

"This is a very exciting discovery for us ... It could potentially help a lot of people around the world by reducing complications in sinus surgery and other surgical procedures."

Tests have confirmed the new gel's healing properties reduce both bleeding and scarring after operations.

"This is a very exciting discovery for us," says Robinson. "This combination makes it the Holy Grail of medical gels. It could potentially help a lot of people around the world by reducing complications in sinus surgery and other surgical procedures."

Australian trials in sheep, run by collaborators at the University of Adelaide's medical school, were highly successful. Sheep have a similar sinus set-up to humans and the Adelaide team, led by Professor Peter-John Wormald, is a world leader in this kind of animal research.

Early human tests showed similar results, with excellent healing, and only slight modifications to the gel were needed. Adelaide is now running controlled human trials on sinus patients and is starting animal testing to see how the gel works when used in internal operations.

"So far everything is working extremely well," says Moratti. "Now we are looking at the best ways to get it into commercial production."

Having patented the gel, the scientists hope to develop niche technology for New Zealand, as well as saving hospitals time and money, and reducing distress and complications for patients.

"This potentially could lead to new export earnings based on the chitosan from squid pens," says Robinson. "Squid are an abundant renewable resource in our waters. In New Zealand, these pens are usually thrown away during seafood processing."

The researchers would like to see the technology developed here rather than sold offshore. "We're talking with local manufacturers and they are extremely keen," says Moratti. "Ideally, we'd harvest the raw materials here and make the finished product here."

First, the trials need to be completed, and then there is the long and multifaceted process of preparing a product for the market "So many things can trip you up, from finding a suitable device to inject the gel, to meeting standards and packaging," says Moratti. "We hope we might have some batches ready for trial distribution within six months, but it could be two years or more before we are in full-scale production."

Meanwhile, the team is also developing electromechanical devices using similar chemistry, based on gels that can shrink or swell with an electrical current. "It should work just as well," says Moratti, "and the market for that is just huge."


  • Foundation for Research, Science and Technology
  • Simon Robinson ENT Ltd
  • Tertiary Education Commission
  • University of Otago
  • University of Adelaide
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