Strong and elastic spider silk can help retrain nerves to grow after damage

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Spiders may have an invaluable role to play in repairing extensive nerve injuries, according to Christine Radtke, a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Austria’s MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital. In trials, Radtke has been using the impressively strong spider silk of the golden orb-weaver spider from Tanzania to help heal extensive nerve injuries of more than five centimeters in length.

“Spider silk is very strong, but also very elastic, which aren’t common properties to find together,” Radtke told Digital Trends.

The microsurgical technique Radtke has helped develop involves filling veins with spider silk as a sort of longitudinal guide structure. “If you’re missing a piece of nerve so that there is a gap, the remaining nerve will have to cross it by growing,” she continued. “However, in order for the nerve to find the right way to grow it needs a guidance structure. Unfortunately, most materials have the effect of inhibiting nerve growth. Spider silk, on the other hand, is a material that nerves love. They will attach to it, and then follows the fibers directly. It’s like a rose trellis.”

In an animal trial, this technique was shown to be capable of repairing nerve damage of distances up to six centimeters, in such a way that the nerve grew back correctly over nine months. During this time, the spider silk guidance structure broke down naturally, without causing any kind of negative reaction.

There have been recent examples of researchers developing artificial spider silk in labs, but Radtke said that none of the artificial silks the team has investigated have been as effective at enhancing regeneration as the real thing. There may be no reason to resort to the fake stuff, either. Even with just 21 spiders in her lab, Radtke said she can harvest 200 meters of spider silk in 15 minutes — without this in any way harming the spiders. Several hundred meters of silk are necessary in order for a six-centimeter nerve injury to be bridged. Over time, Radtke hopes to increase her number of spiders to 50.

“We’ve carried out animal trials, so we know that this is working,” she said, concerning the next step for the research. “Now we need certification for our silk, which is what we’re in the process of achieving right now.”