When a surgeon is suturing up an incision in a patient's abdominal wall, they insert a device known as a retractor, which holds the intestines down and out of the way. This keeps them from getting punctured by the sewing tool, and also from protruding out of the incision to form a hernia. Unfortunately, though, the retractor has to be withdrawn before the incision is completely closed, leaving bowel perforations and hernias still a possibility as the final stitches are put in place. That's why a new retaining material has been developed, that can be left in the abdominal cavity to harmlessly dissolve.

Dr. Jason Spector, a plastic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, saw a need for the material after doing repeated incisional hernia repairs on patients. He sought the help of past collaborator Dr. David Putnam, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell University.

It turned out that Putnam's graduate student at the time, Nicole Ricapito, had created something that fit the bill – it was flexible enough to be inserted through an incision (in the form of a flat disc), yet tough enough to protect against punctures.

The non-toxic material is made from polyethylene glycol, which is a chemical compound used in products such as laxatives, along with dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a by-product of the breakdown of glucose in the body. The polyethylene glycol gives the material flexibility, while the DHA adds strength – additionally, both compounds dissolve when exposed to liquids such as those found in the body.

"Think of it as a flexible rubbery thin sheet – strong at first but dissolves completely in a few hours," Spector explains to us.

The material has already been proven effective in experiments on mice, and should hopefully be headed toward use in humans once it passes clinical trials. A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia.

Source: Cornell University