Synthetic skin spun from spider silk

After milking some spiders, researchers discovered that a mesh frame woven from their silk could help grow artificial skin for burn victims.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

Coming Soon: The Amazing Spider… Silk?

Researchers have found a new material for artificial skin by harvesting silk from nature’s most amazing weavers.

Skin grafts are important for treating burn victims or hospitalized patients who have chronic bedsores. But instead of grafting skin from a body, researchers have been looking for an artificial material, LiveScience explains:

Ideally such a graft would be of a material tolerated by the body, have skin cells embedded within it to replace lost tissue, degrade safely over time as the new skin grows in and be strong enough to withstand all the rigors ordinary skin experiences.

Materials like collagen and even synthetic polymers didn’t seem strong enough. Spider dragline silk to the rescue!

Not only is it the toughest known natural material – 5 times stronger than Kevlar – its ancient folklore suggests that it could fight infections, stem bleeding, and heal wounds. Unlike the silk from silkworms (you know, from elementary school), spider silk doesn’t trigger rejection from the body. And it’s biodegradable!

In particular, the extraordinary strength and stretchiness of spider silk "are important factors for easy handling and transfer of many kinds of implants," says study researcher Hanna Wendt of Medical School Hannover in Germany.

  1. To test the silk’s usefulness, they essentially MILKED golden silk orb-weaver spiders by stroking their silk glands and spooling up the silk fibers that came out.
  2. Then they wove meshes from the silk onto rectangular steel frames.
  3. Given the proper nurturing nutrients, warmth and air, the human skin cells that were placed on these scaffold meshes flourished. (Pictured: days 1 and 4 after seeding the mesh frame. Skin cells had spread from the corners into the meshes, reaching towards each other.)

The team was able to cultivate the 2 main skin cell types – keratinocytes and fibroblasts –into tissue-like patterns resembling the 2 tissue layers of our bilayer skin:

  • epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, and
  • dermis, the layer of living tissue below the epidermis that contains blood capillaries, nerve endings, sweat glands, and hair follicles.

"It was impressive to observe how human cells use spider silk," Wendt says. "I think in the long term, for widespread daily clinical use, synthetic silk fibers providing the same mechanical- and cell culture- properties will be needed."

The study was published in PLoS ONE late last month.

Via LiveScience.

Images: golden silk orb-weaver spider by Victor Patel via Wiki & spider silk mesh from Hanna Wendt et al.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards