Cardiac insufficiency is an ever-present and growing health issue. This loss of cardiac functionality is attributed to the loss of cardiac muscle cells because of disease. There is currently no treatment for this, and the damage is irreversible. However, recent research has found a promising solution: spider silk cardiac muscle tissue.
This would sound insane had scientists not already transformed spinach into beating heart tissue. New medical research is expanding the creative boundaries of possible treatments for concerning health problems every day. And now, most recently, with spider silk protein.
The fibroin protein gives spider silk its strength and structure. Prof. Dr. Felix Engel of the Department of Nephropathology at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen studied the fibroin in the Indian silkworm’s silk and found that it was suitable for making new cardiac tissue. The protein produces a strong scaffolding which would be perfect for an organ that works hard and must be strong, such as your heart.
The only issue was that there wasn’t enough of this protein to make this a viable treatment option. However, Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel, holder of the Chair for Biomaterials at the University of Bayreuth actually produced a recombinant silk protein from garden spiders that could actually produce larger quantities of this protein in consistent quality. The researchers studied this with the help of the E. coli bacteria. So, the two scientists came together to look at the potential of silk proteins from garden spiders.
So, great! But how do they expect to actually integrate these proteins from silk….from another species…that is an arachnid….into a human heart? Jana Petzold of the Erlangen team headed by Prof. Engel and Tamara Aigner from Prof. Scheibel’s Bayreuth considered this in their study.
They investigated the silk protein eADF4(κ16) by applying a thin layer to a glass slide. These proteins have positively charged amino acids (amino acids make up proteins), so the researchers used the power of chemistry to their advantage and figured that cells with negatively charged surfaces would adhere to films made of this protein. They used the cardiac cells as well as other cells from connective tissue and blood vessels.
The researchers predominantly looked at cardiac cell functionality. They compared the cardiac cells to other cells they applied to fibronectin, which would be their natural environment, in terms of cardiac cells. So, in other words, they created an artificial environment of a heart in a petri dish and found that these proteins worked just as well as it would with the fibronectin control.
They also aimed to draw a similarity between the two cultures through studying the effects of hypertrophy on cardiac cells with eADF4(κ16) versus cardiac cells with fibronectin through a pathological approach: hypertrophy. Hypertrophy basically causes an abnormal enlargement of cardiac cells. In these conditions, both cultures responded similarly with a growth in the volume of the cardiac cells, thus further supporting the viability of the spider silk protein in a human heart.
Other studies looking at the potential of the spider silk protein are considering potential 3D printing opportunities to mass produce this protein, so it can become a realistic therapeutic option.