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Spider Silks in Biomedical World

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Most of us find cobwebs (dusty, old spider webs) rather annoying. Having an unclean corner with cobwebs hanging around is the last thing we want after hours of cleaning. Behind the satisfaction of tearing down these cobwebs, we have just ruined a masterpiece of nature. Spider silk, the raw material of the spider web, is an interesting protein biopolymer. In fact, spider silk is an all-rounder. It is softer and finer than human hair, yet elastic, tough, and strong at the same time. With the unique combination of these mechanical properties, spider silks outperform many man-made materials.

Applications in Biomedical Field

We are not done yet with the amazing properties of spider silk. Besides its excellent mechanical properties, spider silk is biocompatible, anti-microbial, and biodegradable. This explains why researchers are so keen to make use of spider silk, especially in the biomedical field. Let us just glance through some of the interesting biomedical applications of spider silks.

Bioimaging

A recently published journal shows the potential of spider silks to fabricate optical lenses for bioimaging applications. These lenses built on spider silks can generate a special type of beam – photonic nanojet (PNJ). This light jet is useful as it allows imaging of large biological areas with high resolution. The researchers had confirmed the PNJ beam shaping in the dome lenses based on the numerical and experimental results. Meanwhile, the study had outlined some advantages of this spider silk-based dome lenses. The lenses consist of a single material only besides being able to shape well easily. Furthermore, the lenses can generate flexible PNJs, which allows imaging at different depths within body tissues. In the future, this new lens may be used to deliver light beams for biological imaging and operation.

A lens built on spider silk.

Tissue Engineering

The biocompatibility of spider silk makes it an ideal material for tissue engineering. One of the common methods is by blending spider silks with other materials to form a biomimetic material. For example, biomimetic spider silk matrices allow self-renewal and differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells. There was another study that showed the potential of spider silk-based scaffold in bone tissue engineering. It supported the attachment and differentiation of cultured human bone cells. Spider silks can also be applied as wound dressing materials. A study had used recombinant spider silk protein as a second-degree burn wound dressing material on a rat model. The results showed that spider silks can promote wound healing.

Drug-Delivery Vehicles

Spider silk can function as a drug carrier for the treatment of diseases like cancer. The bioengineered spider silk fuses with binding peptides to form a hybrid sphere. Loaded with drugs, this sphere will then perform pH-dependent drug release at the targeted site. Earlier studies have proven the functionality of spider silk as a drug carrier. Besides drugs, spider silk can carry genes as well during gene therapy. Gene therapy is important for the treatment of many complicated inherited and acquired diseases. Studies have shown the advantages of spider silk-based gene delivery system over current non-viral vector systems. It is less cytotoxic and more target-specific with higher transfection efficiency. Another thing is that it can always be tailored and tuned to improve its specificity and targeting.

Nerve regrowth platform

Autologous nerve grafts remain the main treatment for peripheral nerve injuries. Spider silk’s biocompatibility and excellent mechanical properties suggest its potential application in nerve regrowth. In fact, the versatility of spider silk fibre processing (wet spinning or electrospinning) enables it to mimic human nerves. Several studies have proven spider silk as a workable guiding material in peripheral nerve regeneration.

Salute to nature’s gift

The potential of spider silks is indeed boundless. We are just starting to tap into the full potential of this unique material. Certainly, there is more to explore as nature will never let us down. So, next time when you come across any spider web, show your mercy.

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  1. Spider silk can create lenses useful for biological imaging
  2. Shehata, N., Hassounah, I., Sobolciak, P., Krupa, I., Lewis, R., & Kandas, I. (2019). Chapter 9 – Spider silk fibres: Synthesis, characterization, and related biomedical applications. In V. Grumezescu & A. M. Grumezescu (Eds.), Materials for Biomedical Engineering (pp. 289-307): Elsevier.
  3. British Wildlife 

 

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