Porcupine quills inspire new type of hypodermic needle

Mike Krumboltz
The Upshot
A microscopic view of a replica porcupine quill (Karp Lab/PA)
A microscopic view of a replica porcupine quill (Karp Lab/PA)

The hypodermic needle has been around a while—many believe the concept even dates back centuries. Of course, there have been upgrades throughout the years, and now there might be another: Researchers believe porcupine needles could serve as inspiration for a new and improved version.

According to a scientific paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers  found that porcupine needles contain "microscopic backward-facing deployable barbs" that enable penetration and "high tissue adhesion."

In plain English, that means the needles are really good at both breaking the skin and staying in place thanks to the barbs. The discovery could help those who require long-term IVs and be used for medical treatments that require staples to keep a wound from splitting.

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The scientists made the discovery by measuring "how much force it took to push in and pull out porcupine quills into pig skin and raw chicken meat," according to the Smithsonian, which also reported on the study. The researchers then repeated the experiment using quills without the sticky barbs. Guess which quill worked better?

In a statement, study co-author James Ankrum of MIT said, "If you can still create the stress concentrations, but without having a barb that catches tissue on removal, potentially you could create something with just easy insertion, without the adhesion."

Scientists have re-created the porcupine quills in plastic. The Smithsonian reports that they "worked like a charm." Hooray for prickly rodents!