The biocompatibility, biodegradability and strength of spider silk are some of the properties that have excited researchers on the possibilities it provides.
This is a protein-based compound that does not cause any adverse allergic, immune or inflammatory reactions in humans. Recently, recombinant technology has enabled scientists to manufacture spider silk, and there is a race to see what uses it can be put to.
A research team in Nottingham was able to use the silk to manufacture a biodegradable mesh that can accomplish two tasks at the same time. Firstly, it can be used as a replacement for the cellular matrix that is generated by human cells. This will help in the growth of new tissue, and is great for healing purposes. The matrix can also be used for making slow release antibiotics.
These developments show the immense possibilities of creating wound dressings from spider silk, which will help the wound to heal faster through the acceleration of tissue growth and also the slow release of the necessary antibiotics.
The medical history of spider silk
For centuries spider silk has been used for medicinal purposes, but this history has not been properly documented. The Romans and Greeks used spider silk as a battle ground dressing when their soldiers were wounded. The methods used was quite ingenious. Deep cuts were washed out using a mixture of vinegar and honey, and then the wounds were packed with balls of spider webs.
Shakespeare also mentions this amazing healing power of spider silk in Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good master cobweb. If I cut my finger, I shall make bold of you” said the character called Bottom.
The development of spider silk in modern medicine
It took about 5 years for the research team at the University of Nottingham to develop a means by which chemically functionalized spider silk is created. The spider silk can then be used for a wide range of wound healing, tissue regeneration and drug delivery purposes.
A technique known as “click-chemistry” is used to attach molecules to the silk. These can then be slowly released from the silk over a long time. In the case of antibiotic delivery, they added the antibiotic levofloxacin to the spider silk, and this was released slowly for a period of 5 days. This means that when used to dress a wound, the wound is kept safe from infection for 5 days, before the dressing is changed.
Spider silk and cardiac tissue generation
Following these amazing discoveries, more research into spider silk and other artificial silk products went a notch higher, aiming at generating cardiac tissue. The protein that gives spider silk its mechanical stability has demonstrated excellent suitability for application as a scaffolding material in the generation of cardiac tissue.
Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel of the University of Bayreuth has produced silk from garden spiders in quantities that are large, and constant qualities thank to the use of E. coli bacteria.
Moving on, the research continued, with the collaboration of Jana Petzold, to apply a thin layer of silk protein on a glass slide for observation. They were able t focus on the functionality of cardiac ceils and came to the conclusion that there were no functional differences between the two.
They showed that hypertrophy, a condition where the heart ceils get enlarged especially in pregnant women and athletes could also manifest within the cardiac cell grown on a thin layer of fibronectin, derived from spider silk.
What are the implications of these studies?
If spider silk can be used to generate cardiac tissue, then some time in the future, artificial hearts could be available for transplant to people with cardiac conditions. This is something that has excited the medical fraternity given that cardiac illnesses are on the increase.
More people all over the world are suffering from cardiac conditions, even if there have been great strides in preventing and slowing down damage to cardiac tissue. Cardiac tissue does not naturally regenerate and when there is an irreversible loss of tissue in the heart, its functioning is affected.
Currently there is no treatment for this king of tissue loss, and the research into the use of spider silk to create cardiac tissue has promising results. The artificial silk protein that is made within a lab environment can soon be used to make cardiac tissue in high volumes and help people with cardiac tissue loss, or ischemic diseases.
Apart from cardiac tissue, the other tissue regeneration properties of the protein could have immense implications on the treatment of diseases that attack the body cells. E.g. Lupus. A lot is yet to be learned about the full potential of spider silk in modern medicine but the outlook is positive and excitingly full of possibilities.