The Next Big Thing in Medical Technology Could Come From the Octopus

Eight arms, several brains and a scientific breakthrough?

Freya, a 3-year-old octopus with a 14-foot span across her extended arms, is pictured at the New England Aquarium in Boston on Oct. 4, 2018.
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

There’s a long history of human inventors taking inspiration from the natural world and coming up with something innovative. Aircraft designers have taken cues from the way birds move through the air, for instance, and the inventor of Velcro was inspired by the way burrs stuck to his socks after a walk in nature. It raises the question of what other plants or animals might have already evolved a breakthrough form of technology.

For the authors of a paper recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the answer is simple: it’s the octopus. No, not their multiple brains or their ability to predict the winner of soccer games. Instead, it’s a bit simpler — and, when it comes to octopi, a lot more ubiquitous. These scientists have examined the suckers that line the tentacles of octopi — and what they see is an improvement on getting certain drugs into the human body.

As Science Translational Medicine editor Melissa Norton explains, it’s challenging for a patient to ingest a macromolecular drug. Instead, they require being injected into veins. The authors of the paper raised a question: would it be possible to take cues from a sucker and deliver the drug that way? Smithsonian Magazine‘s Margaret Osborne explains that the design involves placing the octopus-inspired technology inside someone’s mouth, where the drug would gradually be absorbed into the body.

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For clinical testing, the paper’s authors used the sucker-inspired technology to treat both canine and human subjects with the drug Desmopressin, which is typically used to address cranial diabetes insipidus. The scientists wrote that, in their canine trials, “this suction patch achieved bioavailability up to two orders of magnitude higher than those of the commercial tablet formulation of desmopressin.”

A study of the patch on 40 humans also showed promise. It’s not hard to imagine this technology making it easier for doctors to treat their patients effectively — one more way in which evolution turns out to be especially efficient when it comes to functionality.

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