Repairing damaged nerves and tissue with spider threads

July 28, 2017, Medical University of Vienna
The golden orb-weaver spider. Credit: Medical University of Vienna

The golden orb-weaver spider from Tanzania spins such strong webs that Tanzanian fishermen use them for fishing. Their spider silk is more tear-resistant than nylon and four times more elastic than steel, is heat-stable up to 250° C, extremely waterproof and, on top of that, has antibacterial properties. These characteristics also make it attractive from the point of view of biomedical research. Initial studies conducted by Christine Radtke, new Professor for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital, have shown in an animal model that the threads have great potential for nerve and tissue repair.

There is currently a great need for such techniques in plastic and , especially for so-called extensive injuries of more than 5 cm in length in the peripheral nervous system – for example following a serious accident or after tumour resection. Apart from limited nerve grafts, doctors have only been able to use synthetic conduits (interposition graft), to reconnect severed nerves so that the can grow back together. "However, this only really works well over short distances of up to 4 cm, at most," explains Radtke.

Radtke and her colleagues at the Medical University of Hannover, from whence the surgeon transferred to Vienna in October 2016, developed a new microsurgical technique that involves filling the veins with spider to form a longitudinal guide structure. "This acts almost like a rose trellis," explains Radtke, who is continuing her research at MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital. "The nerve fibres use the silk fibres to grow along in order to reconnect with the other end of the nerve. The silk provides the cells with good adhesion, supports cell movement and encourages cell division."

In an , this technique successfully repaired over distances of up to 6 cm: the nerve fibres grew back together in a functional way within 9 months. At the same time, the framework of spider threads, which is a natural substance, was completely broken down by the body. Equally, spider silk does not provoke a rejection reaction.

Radtke currently has 21 spiders – and hopes to increase this to 50. The spider threads are mechanically harvested, allowing up to 200 m of spider silk to be obtained within 15 minutes. On average, the spiders are "milked" once a week. This process does not harm the spider, which then receives an extra ration of cricket. Several hundred meters of silk are needed to bridge a 6-cm-long nerve injury.

Work is currently underway to certify silk as a medical device, so that it can also be used in clinical trials on humans. Once that has been done, there are other potential applications, says the surgeon: for example in orthopaedics for meniscus or ligament injuries or as a potential skin substitute for deep skin burns. It is possible that could also be used in future for other neurological diseases where cell transplantation plays a role.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Blood stored longer may be less safe for patients with massive blood loss and shock

March 10, 2018
Human blood from donors can be stored for use up to 42 days, and it is a mainstay therapy in transfusion medicine. However, recent studies looking back at patient records have shown that transfusion with older, stored blood ...

After knee replacement, play on

March 8, 2018
(HealthDay)—Knee replacement patients can continue to enjoy sports—such as skiing, tennis and dancing—without worrying that high-impact activities might compromise their new joint, a small, new study finds.

Engineered cartilage template to heal broken bones

March 8, 2018
A team of UConn Health researchers has designed a novel, hybrid hydrogel system to help address some of the challenges in repairing bone in the event of injury. The UConn Health team, led by associate professor of orthopedic ...

Treating hypothyroidism to stop a stubborn surgical complication

March 7, 2018
Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered a link between low thyroid hormone levels and wound healing complications.

Neurocognitive impairment linked to worse outcomes after total joint replacement

March 6, 2018
People with undiagnosed neurocognitive deficits are undergoing hip and knee replacements at high rates and are more likely to have poorer short-term outcomes after surgery, according to new research led by orthopedic surgeons ...

Minimally invasive surgeries underused in older patients, new study finds

March 5, 2018
A study of more than 200,000 Medicare patients who had common surgical procedures shows that, compared to the general population, they underwent far fewer minimally invasive operations, whose benefits include lower rates ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.