Spider Silk Researched for Artificial Skin

Two teams of scientists are researching the viability of spider silk being used for skin therapy.  The teams found with the right amount of nurturing the silk fibers provided a means for skin cells to flourish.  If successful, the findings could advance the way medical procedures for skin grafts are performed.

Spider silk has long been considered a natural wonder.  A unique blend of flexible matter with strong fibers, the versatile silk has many practical uses.  Considered the toughest natural material, the Ancient Greeks sought silk to use as bandages.  But, the Greeks weren’t the only ones to find medical benefits of spider silk.  Silk’s uses can be traced back over 2,000 years ago, with medical uses ranging from stemming blood, to healing wounds and even used as artificial ligaments.  Researchers working on the project point to spider silks combination of strength and stretchiness as a key property in the materials usefulness in medicine.

Tissue engineer Hanna Wendt from the Hannover Medical School in Germany, along with her colleagues, successfully grew skin like tissue from harvested silk.  Using golden silk orb-weaver spiders, the team stimulated the arachnid’s silk glands, coiling the produced silk fibers on a steel frame.  The steel frame and woven silk acted as a base for cultivating skin cells keratinocytes and fibroblasts, two of the body’s main cell types.

Keratinocytes, a protein which produces keratin, provides strength for hair, nails and skin.  Developed in the deep, basal cell layer of skin, over a period of a month, the protein migrates to the outermost skin layer called the epidermis.  Fibroblasts on the other hand, are a “cell of connective tissue that produces and secretes fibers [….] to maintain the extracellular matrix, and to provide a structural framework for many tissues.”  Fibroblasts produce collagen, which is an elastic fiber, along with providing support necessary for proper wound healing and tissue repair.  During research, the cells were developed into a tissue pattern that closely resembled the epidermis and the layer under the epidermis that contains blood capillaries, nerve endings, sweat glands and hair follicles, called the dermis.

Physics Professors Daniel Blair and Jeffrey Urbach are also researching spider silk’s properties in hopes of advancing medical technology.  A grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has allowed the team to study the breakdown and formation of the silk.  Blair explained that spider silk is a form of “soft matter,” which also includes foams, gels, pastes and polymers.  He said this particular field of physics is fast growing because many feel it may be applied to areas of sustainability and energy storage.  Like, Wendt, the physics professors found silk to be much more than just a sticky material.  They say spider silk holds water well, likes the body, is non-damaging, easy to use and above all, non-toxic.

Both teams think spider silk could be an answer to diverse forms of skin therapy applications.  Most notably, they pointed to silk’s versatility as options for skin grafts, bed sores, burn victims and other wound dressings.

Though the findings are impressive, the process is not without some major hurdles.  On a large, commercial scale, the procedure would be timely and costly, deeming the method unpractical.  Wendt acknowledge for widespread daily use, synthetic fibers that contain the same mechanical and cell properties would be needed.  Researchers are working on exploring synthetic spider silk growth, but at this time with no duplicated success.

Photo Credit:  dec.ny.gov/about/68001.html

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