Stitches and staples may be on their way to becoming a thing of the past, thanks to a developing technology known as laser tissue welding. Now, a new gold-based solder has been created, that could make tissue welds in regions such as the intestines much stronger and more reliable.

In “standard” laser tissue welding, a laser is used to precisely heat the body tissue at the edges of a wound. Putting it relatively simply, this causes the extracellular matrix of that tissue to change in structure, allowing the two edges to be sealed together.

It’s quicker to do, heals faster and leaves less scarring than stitches or staples, but the seals that are formed aren’t particularly strong. This could definitely be a problem in organs such as the intestines – if the seal broke and intestinal contents leaked out, a potentially fatal infection could result.

In order to make the seals stronger, a group of scientists led by Arizona State University’s Prof. Kaushal Rege has created a material known as a plasmonic polypeptide nanocomposite. Applied to the edges of a wound like a solder, it consists of microscopic gold nanorods cross-linked with elastin-like polypeptides (chains of amino acids). When exposed to near-infrared laser light, the mixture sets, seals with the tissue, and takes on an elastic quality.

In lab tests, the nanocomposite was applied to ruptures in the small intestines of pigs. Once the welds were complete, they were found to be strong and watertight, flexing with the natural tissue while also keeping bacteria-laden liquid from getting out of the intestine. Depending on the intended application of the nanocomposite, its characteristics (such as its flexibility) can be tweaked by altering the concentration of gold nanorods.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal ACS Nano.