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Many people are scared of spiders and feel uneasy when confronted with these creatures on their thin little legs. And yet spiders may soon help us to cure some serious diseases. The silk that spiders use to weave their delicate webs contains millions of spider silk proteins. They make the super-thin thread extremely stretchable yet strong.
Spider silk – a miracle of nature
This is one miracle of nature that researchers in Germany have been studying. In 2015, for example, a team led by the biophysicist Professor Thomas Scheibel from the University of Bayreuth succeeded in unravelling the mystery of spider silk: the proteins are connected and interwoven in a very special way. Based on this formula, the researchers managed to produce artificial fibres in the lab. In terms of their resilience and elasticity, they are just as good as their natural counterparts. In future, modern biomaterials like these artificial fibres are to be used as implants to encourage the body and its cells to heal themselves – that is the vision of specialists in regenerative medicine.
Stimulating the growth of nerve cells
At the University of Bayreuth’s Fiberlab, biologists, chemists and engineers are now working on developing new materials for medical applications on the basis of the spider silk proteins. Tiny tubular structures that could be implanted in patients with damaged nerves are one example. Whereas the growth of new nerve fibres is normally blocked by scar tissue, the advantage of this method is that the spider silk proteins incorporated into the tubes could show the nerve cells the direction in which to grow. Another advantage of the spider silk fibres is that they can withstand the mechanical strain to which nerve tracts are subjected when the limbs are moved. What is more, the human body does not perceive spider silk as a foreign substance and therefore does not react by rejecting it.
Healing damaged nerve tracts in the spinal cord
Another material that could play a role in future medical applications is hydrogels. Injected into the body, they are likewise designed to encourage cells to regenerate. What makes these gels so special is that they imitate the cell’s natural environment thanks to their mechanical characteristics. As a result, they can interact with the body’s cells. At the DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials in Aachen, the bio-engineer Dr Laura De Laporte is developing one such gel. It is hoped that it will promote the regeneration of damaged nerve tracts in the spinal cord. The substance only turns into a gel after having been injected – and does so only at the exact place where the tissue is damaged.
How hydrogels guide cell behaviour
Hydrogels are seen as promising not only on account of their mechanical characteristics. Researchers can also add any bioactive materials or individual molecules they like to the hydrogel’s three-dimensional molecular structure in order to guide the behaviour of nearby cells. So far, however, these medical techniques of the future work only in the lab. When it really becomes possible to apply them to humans, this could mark the dawn of a new era in medicine.