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Silk skin grafts: or, why anyone would ever milk a spider

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Someone has to milk this spider to get the silk though. o.O

By Cat Viglienzoni — August 13, 2011

For all that I don’t like them, I seem to be posting about spiders quite a bit.

The latest find involves spiders helping burn victims. According to researchers at the Department of Plastic, Hand and Reconstructive Surgery at Medical School Hannover in Germany, spider silk may hold the secrets to better skin grafts.

The study aims to find a better material for creating artificial skin, saying previous materials like collagen didn’t seem to be strong enough. Spider silk, on the other hand, is five times stronger that Kevlar. The study explains that “spider silks display excellent mechanical features that even rival man-made, high-tech fibers.” (I still don’t know if I’d trust a vest made out of it though!)

Uses in stopping bullets aside, what this means for skin grafts is that spider silk could potentially be woven to create a more effective false skin that would protect a burn or other type of graft-requiring wound until the skin itself has a chance to catch up.

Unfortunately, the spiders chosen by the study happen to be ones I have touched on in a previous blog as being actually terrifying – the golden orb web spiders. (This happens to be due to the fact that I saw this article, in which one of them is devouring a BIRD.)

But the study claims the dragline these spiders produce is right on a number of levels. The ideal material they look for needs to promote attachment and the build-up and growth of cells. It also needs to degrade in an appropriate time period without releasing anything harmful or causing a pathological immune response. According to the study, “spider dragline silk from Nephila spp meets these demands to a large extent.”

To get the silk, researchers did what sounds like the most horrifying task ever and milked the silk glands of the golden orb spiders. As the silk fibers came out, they spooled them. The silk was then woven onto a rectangular steel frame less than a millimeter thick. The result was a easy-to-handle meshwork frame that could be sterilized.

The researchers then found that human skin cell types could grow on those frames if they were properly nurtured with nutrients, warmth, and air. The mesh was seeded with fibroblasts, type of cell that makes the extracellular matrix (which provides structural support to cells) and collagen. After two weeks, they added keratinocytes, the main type of skin cell, onto the frame to create a bilayered skin model with epidermis (outermost layer of skin) and dermis (next layer) equivalents, and let that cultivate for another three weeks.

But this isn’t a miracle cure. Though the study concludes that spider silk “appears to be a promising biomaterial for the enhancement of skin regeneration,” the researchers also said the use of synthetic fibers has to be considered. After all, harvesting large amounts of spider silk isn’t exactly practical. (And really, who wants that job?)

This means that for daily, widespread use, man-made materials are still the way to go. However, the synthetic materials need be able to mimic the properties of the spider web.

And so even though I hate to admit it, we have a lot we can learn from spiders. Even the ones we don’t like.

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Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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Written by Cat Viglienzoni

August 13, 2011 at 11:41 AM

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