After five years of work, scientists in the UK have found a way to create synthetic spider silk that's loaded with antibiotic properties, and could help deliver drugs and close open wounds with a decreased risk of infection.
The new material takes silk, which is synthesised from E. coli bacteria, and adheres molecules to its structure, infusing it with different substances that make for a better bandage.
"Our technique allows the rapid generation of biocompatible, mono or multi-functionalised silk structures for use in a wide range of applications," said corresponding author Neil Thomas, from the University of Nottingham.
"These will be particularly useful in the fields of tissue engineering and biomedicine."
While it might seem odd, spider silk is actually a pretty incredible material when it comes to first aid. It’s biocompatible, biodegradable, protein-based, and it isn’t known to cause any sort of immune, inflammatory or allergic reactions.
The team says that using spider silk as wound dressing goes all the way back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used the material to dress the wounds of soldiers to stop bleeding.
This process usually involved soldiers using a honey-vinegar mixture as an antiseptic to keep the wound clean, and then wrapping it in wads of spider silk to keep it safe.
The team basically took this idea and modernised it with new technology. Instead of using real spider silk, they made their own by synthesising strands from E. coli bacteria in the lab.
Once they had that procedure down pat, they discovered that they could ‘decorate’ the silk by covering it with antibiotic levofloxacin, a drug commonly used for treating bacterial infections.
To pull that off, the molecules are ‘clicked’ into place inside a solution of synthesised spider silk before the proteins are turned into the actual strands.
The best way to envision this is to think of a ball of yarn. Before it's individual strands, yarn is just a bunch of fibres. In that phase, before it is spun into strands, you can add extra materials or dyes. Then, when that’s all done, you can make it into actual yarn with those added properties.
The team is doing the exact same thing but on a much smaller, more scientific level by binding antibiotics to the raw materials needed to spin synthetic spider silk, creating an infusion of silk and antibiotics.
The funny thing is that the team came together by chance. Five years ago, the team’s leaders – Neil Thomas and Sara Goodacre, both from the University of Nottingham – met at an event when Goodacre prompted an audience to help her make spider silk.
"At the end of the session Neil came up to me and said 'I think my group could make that'," Goodacre recounts.
"He also suggested that there might be more interesting 'tweaks' one could make so that the silk could be 'decorated' with different, useful, compounds either permanently or which could be released over time due to a change in the acidity of the environment."
From that moment on, the team worked together to come up with ways to make the spider silk and the potential bandage of the future, eventually coming to the antibiotic-laced version of the material that they have today.
"It is likely that this paper is just the start of a very exciting range of studies using the new spider silk material," Goodacre said.
The team’s work has been published in Advanced Materials.