Under the Microscope: Spider silk weaving its way into medical treatments

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BISMARCK, N.D. - Let’s face it- spiders are hard to love. Some people think they’re scary and gross. But appearances can be deceiving. The golden orb weaving spider is known for its ability to spin a web.

Now they’re trying to weave their way into medical journals with the help of NDSU researchers.

It may sound like science fiction, but the potential for medicinal uses is very real. The silk they spin could give doctors a leg, or 8 legs up in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Meet the rock stars of the spider lab at NDSU. With names like Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and Adele, the spiders are sure to turn some heads. These golden orb weaving spiders can spin 6 different types of silk when making their webs

“It can actually place Lego pieces for strength in a certain spot and then lego pieces for elasticity in certain spots so it can tailor its silk as it’s being spun,” said Engineer Brad Hoffman.

It’s that ingenuity that has researchers excited.

“It’s really strong and it’s really stretchy and from a molecular perspective, we know how to make those properties happen. So we can manipulate the proteins in order to deliver drugs,” said Dr. Amanda Brooks, assistant professor at North Dakota State University.

Dr. Brooks and her team sedate the spiders and tape them down. Then with a little food incentive, they begin extracting the silk from the spiders. One spider can produce enough silk to run the length of a football field every other day, but they’re using it to create silk bubbles, fill them with medicine, then deliver right to an infection.

“Release the antibiotic only when you have the infection so that the bacteria isn’t exposed to the unnecessary drug,” said graduate student Pranothi Mulinti.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing issue. 23,000 people in the United States died from antibiotic resistant bacteria in 2013. Worldwide, the numbers could grow to 10 million deaths by 2050. The lab is making more than just bubbles.

“We’re not effectively treating these infections. So we’re designing an antibiotic releasing bone void filler putty that can provide antibiotic release in a local environment,” said graduate student Raquib Hasan.

The antibiotic infused putty would be used for bone remodeling. Hasan says multiple surgeries have made him a candidate for joint replacement later in life.

“I have gone through that experience and I know how people would feel and why they need it. So if I can do something with the motivation I have, I feel like I can do better,” said Hasan.

The next step for the lab is testing the product.

Dr. Brooks says they can load the drug and successfully deliver it around bacteria. The next step is putting it in an animal system.