Here’s a case of technology taking a page from nature to solve a long-standing problem. In a recent study, researchers from the University of Bayreuth successfully developed new biomaterials modeled after spider silk.
Biomaterials, in medicine, refer to materials that interact with biological systems to restore function and help with healing for people after an injury or disease. The earliest recorded use of biomaterials was with ancient Egyptians, wherein they used animal tissue for suturing wounds. Currently, technology allows us to create biomaterials from a variety of things. Some examples include metal, ceramics, plastic, glass and, yes, even living cells and tissue.
The name may seem fancy, but the term includes many devices that we already know, like blood glucose monitoring devices, dental implants and hearing aids, as well as heart implants such as valves, stents and grafts. Biomaterials are also used in cancer treatment, tissue regeneration and molecular research.
Despite having a wide range of applications, biomaterials can be problematic. For one, pathogens can settle on the surface, which can complicate treatment or affect a patient’s quality of life. As these microbes settle, they often form a biofilm—those who watched the anime Cells at Work, yes, that shield-like net—which cannot be easily removed by cleaning agents or even antibiotics. These not only impairs healing, but the resulting infection can often be life-threatening.
According to the team, their work is a marked improvement over existing biomaterials, as these not only reduce the risk of infection but also promote the healing process. In particular, the new biomaterial—patterned after spider silk proteins—stops bacteria and fungi from multiplying at its surface. The new biomaterial also promotes tissue regeneration, which makes it ideal for implants, wound dressings, prosthetics and contact lenses, among others.
To create their new biomaterial, researchers developed a spider silk nanostructure based on the real thing. While real spider silk, the main component in spider webs, is used to trap prey, the new biomaterial prevents pathogens from sticking to it. The material is even effective against MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria often linked to surgeries and biomaterial applications.
With the ability to prevent microbe growth, their material solves a common problem associated with biomaterials, say the researchers. (Read: Latest tech lets electronics be drawn on your own skin)
In addition, the new biomaterial promotes cell growth, which speeds up the healing process. This ability makes it useful for medical applications such as wound dressings, skin grafts and implants, which require the repair of lost or damaged tissue. To note, the researchers are exploring the potential of the biomaterials to be used in microbe-resistant coatings in the future.
“Our investigations to date have led to a finding that is absolutely ground-breaking for future research work. In particular, the microbe-repellent properties of the biomaterials we have developed are not based on toxic … effects,” explained Dr. Thomas Schiebel, a biomaterials researcher at Bayreuth and the senior author of the study. “They make it impossible for pathogens to attach themselves to these surfaces.”