Letting bio-inspired solutions evolve: Q&A with Jeff Karp

Jeff Karp, bioengineer and Associate Professor at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, illuminates the art and science of adapting medical tools, treatments, and technologies from solutions found in nature. We interviewed Jeff to learn more about his views on innovation and bio-inspired work.

“Successful problem definition must precede a successful problem solution.” Jeff Karp at TEDMED 2014.
“Successful problem definition must precede a successful problem solution.” Jeff Karp at TEDMED 2014.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

Solving medical problems is very challenging; we often encounter barriers that seem insurmountable. Instead of relying on our limited intellect and narrow thinking, there is opportunity for us to turn to nature for inspiration. Every living thing has overcome an enormous number of challenges; in essence, we are surrounded by solutions. My hope is that this talk will help others, through inspiration from nature, overcome challenges they face.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

Innovation is not simply coming up with new ideas. I believe that being innovative means actually doing things that help people. Thus, innovation can only be retrospectively defined. My hope is that when I look back on my career, I can claim that many of the projects that we pursued were innovative.

If you had more time on the TEDMED stage, what else would you have talked about?

There are many projects we are working on that I would love to have shared, such as our new battery coating to prevent injury from accidental ingestion of coin cell batteries by kids. There are 3,000-4,000 accidental ingestions of coin cell batteries each year, mostly in young children, and many result in major injuries including death. We also have a drug delivery system that delivers drugs on demand, which we have shown can be used to prevent transplant rejection, achieve longterm sustained delivery for treatment of inflammatory arthritis, and reduce toxicity and dosing requirements for treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. Additionally we have a technology to administer cells via intravenous infusion and target them in the bloodstream to diseased or damaged tissues — a type of stem cell based GPS system. When I talk about the baby tape innovation, it’s worth pointing out that the nurses and doctors in the neonate units emphasized that it’s okay to leave the glue entirely on the skin, as we can easily detackify it by addition of baby power (so it will not stick to bedding). We also found that by adding baby powder to the remaining glue on the skin, we can place another adhesive directly on top with the same level of adhesion. In addition to the video that I showed where we can seal holes in the heart with our slug inspired glue, we have also shown that the glue can affix a patch inside a beating heart, directly to the septum that separates the chambers of the heart where septal defects are located. We have launched a startup based on this technology, Gecko BioMedical; we hope to have our first products in use soon.