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Image: Porcupine sitting on a log

The Way Porcupines are Influencing Healthcare!

The sharp quills covering a porcupine are more than just a great defense—they’re also inspiring safer medical practices! 

There’s a whole treasure trove of possibilities when we look closer at the intricacies of nature’s designs. And at the end of the North American porcupine’s quills resides just the right design that can help us reduce life-threatening infections!

It’s a fascinating prospect, so we’re taking a look at just how researchers plan to use this design in medicine!

Image: Porcupine sitting on a log
Source: Pixabay

“Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.”

Rachel Carson

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have been studying the ways the design of North American porcupine quills can impact healthcare! 1 Possible applications include everything from hypodermic needles that result in less harm to tissues, to the design of staples used for wound closure. 

It’s the latter that seems to get them the most excited! By copying the microscopic barbs found on the North American porcupine’s quills, they believe they have found a way to greatly reduce the frequency and probability of infection. 

For a closer look at their inspiration, we turn to none other than the great channel, Deep Look. They’re bringing us up close and personal with the porcupine to see what all this excitement is about! 

Via: Deep Look 2

I highly suggest digging into more content from Deep Look! They show us the world in microscopic detail, bringing wonders to our screens that we could never have seen without them! You can find more of their work over on their Youtube channel!

Porcupines to the rescue!

Let’s take a closer look at how these cuties with sharp behinds are sparking innovation in healthcare.

Image: magnification of a north american porcupine quill
Magnification of the tip of a North American porcupine quill
Courtesy of Dr. Jeff Karp
Image: Extreme magnification of a North American porcupine quill
Details of the tip of a quill from a North American porcupine
Courtesy of Dr. Jeff Karp

When researchers looked closer at how the porcupine’s quills worked, they were surprised to discover that barbed quills puncture the skin with much more ease than smooth quills or the hypodermic needles we use now! In fact, they’ve reported that they’re able to slide into tissue with half as much effort as their non-barbed counterparts. 3 And although the barbs make the quills easier to insert, taking them out is a whole different story. Their ridges keep the needles right in place! 

Fun fact: North American porcupines are the ones with barbed quills. African porcupines have smooth ones! 

And this is huge for us! Particularly when we’re looking at medical staples…which we’d really prefer not to budge. Traditional staples used to dress wounds tear through the skin and have to be bent underneath it to stay put. Unfortunately, this causes a wound of their own, only making it easier for bacteria to join the party and cause infection!

But (and this is the exciting part) staples that are designed with the porcupine in mind can stay put without being bent. Those microscopic barbs keep them right where we want them!

Because of this, the wound is less exposed to bacteria, likely helping to speed up healing times.

And to remove them? Why, the staples will be made from biodegradable material so they’ll just dissolve, avoiding any further tissue damage.

Dr. Jeff Karp, whose lab is working on this research, believes that testing of these staples can begin in 2-5 years!

In a great article about this innovation from NPR, Karp brings up a great point,:”Nature has designs that humans can’t achieve yet, at least at large scale. Large-scale manufacturing is a human problem.” 4

Looking to nature for inspiration is one of our best bets to create better innovations and environments. We just need to catch up to its millions of years of testing with the right technologies!

“There is no better designer than nature.”

Alexander McQueen

This is a great step forward to safer healthcare.

And it definitely isn’t the first time that turning to nature’s designs have made us healthier!

Explore these articles to meet a few more wonderful creatures who have helped us innovate in the medical fields. Without the friends in these articles, you very well may not be reading this right now!

You Should Really Thank the Fruit Flies

Would you believe that your genes are super similar to a fruit fly’s? They’ve been helping us discover our own bodies for years, here’s how…

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Earth’s Most Fascinating Creature: The Naked Mole-Rat?

Naked mole-rats are far more than what meets the eye. These strange, ancient, cancer resistant, insect-like mammals have a lot for us to learn from!

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Never forget that there is so much more to discover. The solutions to most every one of our problems are out there, hidden in the complex systems so beautifully designed by time. And researchers, scientists, and citizen scientists (that’s us!) are looking hard to find them.

Check out the following article to learn more about how you can help researchers make these discoveries on your next adventure.

What Happens When Athletes and Scientists Team Up?

To put it simply: breakthroughs. This nonprofit is making it possible for scientists to get the data they need from every corner of the planet by teaming them up with the adventurers who are already there.

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Stay open to new possibilities!

  • Sam

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein 

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  1. Science Magazine. “Porcupine Quills Could Inspire Better Medical Devices.” Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 Sept. 2019. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/338/6113/1403.2
  2. Deep Look. “Porcupines Give You 30,000 Reasons to Back Off | Deep Look.” Youtube. Deep Look, 09 Apr. 2019. Web. 10 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZphlCdI2yqA&feature=youtu.be.
  3. Science Magazine. “Porcupine Quills Could Inspire Better Medical Devices.” Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 Sept. 2019. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/338/6113/1403.2
  4. Cassidy, Josh, and Laura Shields. “Porcupine Barbs For Better Wound Healing.” NPR. NPR, 09 Apr. 2019. Web. 10 Sept. 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/09/711050307/porcupine-barbs-for-better-wound-healing
Published: October 15, 2019

Image: Samantha Burns

Sam Burns

Former Editor-In-Chief

Sam wrote and edited hundreds of articles during her time on the Goodness Exchange team from 2016-2021. She wrote about topics from the wonders of nature to the organizations changing the world and the simple joys in life! Outside of the Goodness Exchange, she’s a part-time printmaker, collector of knick-knacks, and procurer of cheeses.

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