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Glass in a wound? Missouri S&T scientist will study how the material helps patients heal

Mark Towler is shown in three-quarter profile wearing a navy suit jacket and purple knit shirt.
Toronto Metropolitan University
Missouri University of Science and Technology professor Mark Towler is studying how a finely powdered glass could help prevent infections in wounds. The material has been shown to decrease bleeding and speed up blood clotting.

A Missouri University of Science and Technology scientist will soon travel to South Africa to study how powdered glass could heal wounds and prevent infections.

Mark Towler, a chemical and biochemical engineering professor at the university, has for years worked to investigate how powdered glass can stop bleeding in injuries caused by car accidents, gunshots and stab wounds.

He has patented a unique form of the material that is very porous. In South Africa, he and other scientists at the University of Western Cape will test whether that material will decrease infections and encourage blood clotting.

“It will be great to have a material that stops a bleed very quickly, like our material does,” Towler said. “But it'd be even better if that material can then stop any further infections due to that site being an open wound.”

Towler plans to leave for South Africa next year.

Large wounds that require a substance to help clotting also put a person at risk of infection, he said. There’s evidence the porous glass powder starts a reaction that releases zinc and other antibacterial elements as it degrades.

Many might cringe when they envision putting glass into an injury. But Towler said for decades the material has been used to regenerate bones and assist in wound care.

“We can actually apply it with a delivery mechanism which is not that dissimilar to a sugar shaker on the table of a diner,” he said. “It looks like sugar, it handles like sugar, and when you put it into the wound it causes a very quick clotting process to occur.”

The glass, which has been tested on animals but not yet on humans, acts like a sponge, sopping up the liquid parts of the blood. It also gives a structure for clots to form on top, because the clotting parts of blood stay on top of the glass substance, forming a seal, Towler said.

Unlike other materials, it doesn’t need to be removed after use since it dissolves into the body, and it doesn’t heat up when applied like other clotting agents do.

Towler has licensed the material to Louisville-based DesiCorp, a biotech company whose specialties involve freeze-drying blood to make transfusions easier. 

While most people think of glass as what is inside windows or spectacles, glass isn't a particular substance. Instead, it’s a word to describe a non-crystalline solid, said Brett Janis, DesiCorp’s CEO. 

“You don’t think about those things, but glass is just a state of matter,” he said. “And the shape of [Towler’s] glass is very special, because blood gets into the cracks of the glass and it acts as a … point for clotting.”

The glass could be used by the military, he said. Many preventable deaths in modern wars are due to severe blood loss, and a powdered clotting agent can be easier to use than clamps or tourniquets. It could also be used in places those tools couldn’t reach. 

“You can’t push a piece of shrapnel in your liver, you need some kind of tool for that,” Janis said. He added the powder could also have large-scale practical use among the general public, particularly among women who experience risky hemorrhaging after giving birth. 

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.