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Spider silk microcapsules could deliver vaccines to help battle cancer

Spider silk is a pretty darn versatile material. We previously covered research projects in which spider silk is used to help retrain nerves after major injuries, to improve the quality of microphones for use in hearing aids, and to form lightweight shields capable of absorbing enormous impacts. Now, researchers from Switzerland’s University of Geneva and other institutions have added one more innovative use case to the mix: Battling cancer.

In a new piece of work, they demonstrated how microcapsules made of artificial spider silk could be used to deliver potentially life-saving vaccines direct to your immune cells as a way of fighting cancerous tumors. When it comes to arachnid-themed entities fighting evildoers, you could think of them as your own personal tiny Spider-Man!

“Spider silk is light and very resistant,” professor Carole Bourquin, a specialist in anti-tumor immunotherapies who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “It does not induce any inflammation or immune reaction in itself. We found that amazingly the microparticles can withstand high temperatures of more than 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) for several hours. This suggests that they may protect vaccines in developing countries where refrigeration is frequently a problem for conventional vaccines.”

In their demonstration, the researchers used biotechnology to create the spider silk microcapsules. “It is basically a protein chain rolled up on itself like a ball of wool to form microparticles, into which we incorporated the vaccine,” Bourquin continued. “The microparticles protect the vaccine from being rapidly degraded in the body, and carry it to the immune cells where it is released and can induce an immune response. The immune response is much more effective with the transport system for the vaccine.”

They were able to successfully show that this spider silk-delivered vaccine generates strong T-lymphocyte responses, essential for protecting against cancer and certain infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. While Bourquin noted that there is still more work to be done before the approach can be tested in patients, it appears extremely promising at this stage.

A paper describing the work, titled “Engineered hybrid spider silk particles as delivery system for peptide vaccines,” was recently published in the journal Biomaterials.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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