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silk spider
Would you trust this spider's silk in your wounds? (Photo Jalila Essaidi)

Biocompatible materials such as titanium are commonplace in healthcare. Spider silk as part of a skin graft however may be unsettling to people.

Successful companies innovate and innovation can bring a lot of good to society, but it may harm as well. The challenge is to innovate in a responsible way: beneficial both to business and society. Last semester, students followed the minor Responsible Innovation and studied the ethics in the innovation process. Part of their assignment was to write an article for a general audience. This is part 2 from 4.

During their minor in Responsible Innovation, TU Delft students Max Wouters, Leyi Hsu, Jeannet Liang, Gino Pel, and Pieter Brorens along with their mentor Barry Fitzgerald considered alternatives for conventional wound treatments such as skin grafts and how to take away the obstacles to these treatments.  

The main aims of conventional wound treatment methods are to lower the risk of infection and promote healing of the wound. For deep or large wounds, skin grafts can be taken from another part of the body to act as a cover for the wound. Such treatments are quite invasive, can affect patient comfort, and prolong recovery time. Hence, there is a need for a new type of skin graft material, one which ensures increased comfort for the patient while promoting faster recovery. Luckily, such a material already exists in nature and many of us have encountered it in our daily lives. That material is spider silk.   

Why use spider silk for wound healing?
Ever since the time of Pliny the Elder, the renowned Roman philosopher, silk materials have been promoted for use in wound healing. Now, just over 2,000 years later, we have characterised the unique properties of silk that would benefit wound healing treatments such as biodegradability, high tensile strength, biocompatibility, and high flexibility. Together these properties could allow for wound healing materials that are more flexible, tougher, and resilient than human skin. In addition, given silk’s biocompatibility, there is a lower chance that it would be rejected by the body.

To create wound healing options with spider silk that could be used as grafts, spider silk could be combined with human skin cells and then cultured into skin grafts in the laboratory. The spider silk skin graft could then be placed on the wound and over time the new graft will integrate with the surrounding skin while the spider silk vanishes, leaving behind healthy skin. This sounds like an extraordinary treatment, but why has it not been implemented yet?

Overcoming obstacles
While spider silk holds great potential as a wound treatment material, a good product does not necessarily make a successful product. There are obstacles to innovation that must be overcome before the successful introduction of spider silk skin grafts to the healthcare sector.

1. Lack of large-scale production 
The first obstacle is the lack of efficient large-scale production. The manufacture of spider silk involves high costs and inefficient production methods as it is not feasible to rely on spider farms due to the cannibalistic and territorial temperament of spiders. Nonetheless, researchers are considering a number of different transgenic production options. A transgenic organism is an organism that includes a gene or genes (also known as transgene/transgenes) from another species. For instance, in a 2001 paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, Jürgen Scheller and colleagues in Germany presented genetically modified tobacco and potato plants for the production of spider silk. Around the same time, Professor Randy Lewis pioneered the use of transgenic goats for the production of spider silk proteins. More recently, researchers have turned to bacteria such as E. coli for large scale spider silk production. While all of these approaches facilitate larger scale production than spiders, further developments are necessary.

2. Legal approval
The second obstacle surrounds obtaining legal approval for transgenic studies on spider silk production. Currently it is not permitted to own or create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the Netherlands. In 2010, the Dutch bio-artist Jalila Essaïdi, led a project referred to as 2.6g 329m/s where she created a bulletproof skin made from spider silk and human skin. The spider silk came from the transgenic goats of Professor Lewis, who had received permission in the US to breed the transgenic goats given that the regulations on the creation and possession of GMOs are less stringent than in Europe. Importantly, this project demonstrates that spider silk can be successfully integrated with human skin, which is critical for the potential of spider silk skin grafts.

3. Scepticism of the general public 
The last obstacle for the implementation of spider silk skin grafts is the potential scepticism or concerns of the general public. Despite working on a highly innovative and artistic material, individuals such as Lewis and Essaïdi have received some negative feedback on their work. This may be associated with prejudice to spider silk and a lack of knowledge on transgenic organisms. One way to overcome this obstacle is to communicate to the general public on this type of research in a transparent and clear manner.

Future prospects
Spider silk skin grafts could certainly become a highly pertinent biomaterial for future wound treatments. Limitations such as inefficient production, negative attitudes towards transgenic organisms, and the concerns of the general public need to be addressed before spider silk skin grafts can become a mainstream wound treatment. Nonetheless, 10 years from now, spider silk skin grafts might be as common as gold tooth fillings.

  • About this project

Leyi, Jeannet, Max, Gino, and Pieter are part of a Student Project Group (SPG) following a minor in Responsible Innovation, which is facilitated through a collaboration of the universities of Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam. Each university contributes a specific focus in the field of responsible innovation. The students follow courses and complete projects on responsible innovation, responsible management and ethics over two study blocks.

  • About the mentor

Barry W. Fitzgerald is a research scientist based at the Process & Energy Department of 3mE, TU Delft. His main research interests include biomass processing, polymer physics, responsible innovation, and science education. He is also actively involved in scientific communication outreach and has published the popular science books Secrets of Superhero Science and Secret Science of Santa Claus. In addition, Barry is the editor-in-chief of the TU Delft hosted open access journal Superhero Science and Technology. Contact him here.

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