Christine Radtke is working to use spider silk to reconnect severed nerve fibers. Radtke and her colleagues at the Medical University of Hannover, from whence the surgeon transferred to Vienna in October 2016, developed a new microsurgical technique that involves filling the veins with spider silk to form a longitudinal guide structure. “This acts almost like a rose trellis,” explains Radtke, who is continuing her research at MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital. “The nerve fibers use the silk fibers to grow along in order to reconnect with the other end of the nerve. The silk provides the cells with good adhesion, supports cell movement and encourages cell division.”
Radtke currently has 21 spiders — and hopes to increase this to 50. The spider threads are mechanically harvested, allowing up to 200 m of spider silk to be obtained within 15 minutes. On average, the spiders are “milked” once a week. This process does not harm the spider, which then receives an extra ration of cricket. Several hundred meters of silk are needed to bridge a 6-cm-long nerve injury.
Work is currently underway to certify spider silk as a medical device, so that it can also be used in clinical trials on humans. Once that has been done, there are other potential applications, says the surgeon: for example in orthopedics for meniscus or ligament injuries or as a potential skin substitute for deep skin burns. It is possible that spider silk could also be used in future for other neurological diseases where cell transplantation plays a role.
In the United States, spider silk is being used in a biodegradable composite that can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials. A UConn materials science team has developed an innovative composite for healing broken load-bearing bones based on a protein found in the silk fibers spun by spiders.
Source: Medical University of Vienna, Austria.