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Tiny Cocoons Made Of Silk Could Help Burn Victims

By Linda Gradstein | The Media Line

July 25, 2017

A silkworm viewed with an infrared camera. The pale elongated cavity is the silk gland. (Sheffield University)
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Solves issue of how to deliver drugs within body

There are two problems with coming up with new drugs to cure disease or better cosmetics – designing the product itself, and figuring how to get it where it needs to go in the body. A team of researchers seems to have made a breakthrough in the latter issue, by manufacturing microscopic versions of the cocoons spun by silkworms.

The idea is that these tiny capsules can protect sensitive molecular material which have potential health or nutritional benefits from degrading and losing some of their curative properties.

“When you have damaged tissues and the cell is almost dead, silk can give it a second life. It can help it to divide and live again,” Ulyana Shimanovich, a researcher from the Weizmann Institute of Science told the Media Line. “It could help to regenerate skin after a burn.”

Until now, researchers have been using synthetic capsules since the natural silk fibers tend to clump together once they are extracted. Shimanovich says the new technology could also have applications for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. These tiny capsules can penetrate the blood-brain barrier, meaning they can be used to deliver drugs or vaccines intact to target organs.

“My initial goal was to understand why silk fibers are so similar to bad fibers but so functional and positive to our body,” she said. “I was quite surprised and inspired by this phenomenon.”

The silk proteins are stored in liquid form in the silkworm’s glands before they are spun into threads used to construct the cocoons. In the past, these proteins tended to clump together once they were extracted. But using the principles of microfluidics, a field that deals with the control of fluid flow parameters on the micron-scale level.

The scientists were able to cause the protein molecules to assemble into a gel-like material, exactly as in a silkworm.

Shimanovich’s colleague Thomas Mueller of the University of Cambridge expanded on the potential.

“There are currently no disease modifying therapies for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s but recent clinical trials suggest that antibodies might have very significant potential in this area,” he told The Media Line. “One of the key problems with this class of therapeutics is, however, that the molecules can denature and lose their activity during storage. One potential application of our silk micrococoons therefore is the ability to stabilize such therapeutically interesting molecules in a biocompatible environment to help prevent denaturation. In our paper we demonstrate this effect for an antibody raised against alpha-synuclein, the protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease.”

But he cautioned that developing this technology will take time.

“There are a number of possible applications of this technology,” he said. “In terms of impact on human health, the most exciting ones are in drug formulation and delivery. In this context, the road to therapeutics is typically long, but we are hoping that the ability to stabilise molecules through encapsulation in silk micrococoons will facilitate the development of new drugs over the next ten years.”

 

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