Injuries in the spinal cords can be a traumatic experience for patients. It may not lead them towards paralysis, but the expense of the treatment and the dramatic change of lifestyle can be painful. In the UK, there are currently around 50,000 people with a serious spinal cord injury with 1,000 new cases arising every year.
Silk to repair spinal injury
Right now, there’s no cure for serious spinal injury as spinal nerves can’t pass the scar tissue barrier and the cavity that forms in the cord after it is injured. However, researchers at the University of Aberdeen, in collaboration with Oxford Biomaterials Ltd, discovered that modified silk from wild Asian silkworm could be used to treat damaged spinal cords. They found that, an unlikely solution in the form of sterilized silk obtained from the Antheraea pernyi or AP (commonly known as silkworms) containing several properties well suited to spinal repair. It means the researchers could use the silk to bridge the gap in an injured spinal cord, letting nerves grow in the damaged area of the spin.
Why the silk?
What makes this silk so special is its perfect rigidity. If the silk was too rigid, it could end up damaging the patient’s back. On the other hand, if it was too soft, the nerves would simply fail to grow across it.
In addition, this modified silk has important properties that are beneficial to nerve growth. The silk comes with a repeated “RGD” sequence that stimulates nerve growth by letting the nerves attach themselves easily to the silk.
When it comes to the body’s immune system, the silk didn’t trigger a response from the spinal cords’ immune system cells, therefore cuts down the risk of inflammation.
Finally, the modified silk gradually degrades over time. The material slowly dissolves after it has helped the nerves attach themselves to the silk, and the nerves will serve as a bridge for other nerves.
Dr. Wenlong Huang, from the University of Aberdeen, said:
Spinal injuries affect 250,000–500,000 people globally every year. It can have devastating effects for people who suffer them, including loss of motor and sensory function below the level of injury, and bladder, bowel, and sexual dysfunction. If we can work to find a solution, such as the use of AP silk, to improve their quality of life even slightly then it is beneficial. Intriguingly, AP silk may also have the potential to aid repair following brain injury. These are still early bench-based studies but they certainly seem to show that AP silk has fantastic properties, especially suitable for spinal repair, and we look forward to researching this further.
Previously, researchers discovered that artificial silk from spider could be used in medical research and technological applications. So, this isn’t the first time silk made from insects are providing medical benefits.