For many of us, spiders are our worst phobia, the stuff of nightmares. But these scuttling, eight-legged creatures could be on the brink of delivering a major benefit to human health.
The key to this sudden transformation of the spider, from the shudder-inducing creepy-crawly we all know into beneficent fairy godmother, lies in its web.
Staggeringly, spider silk is six times as strong as steel. Which means that this hitherto overlooked substance is quite possibly the perfect material to help repair damaged human joints.
The potential is enormous, say scientists. Knee injuries are just one area where spider silk could provide the answer, ending years of agony for sufferers and billions of euros of costs for national healthcare systems.
Knee injuries can cause crippling disability in both young and old, often leading to osteoarthritis and eventually requiring knee joint replacements. That could all be about to change, thanks to the despised – and, sadly, often squished - spider.
“Spiders are the product of 400 million years of evolution and they really are incredible little bio-engineers,” says Dr Nick Skaer, CEO of Oxford-based medical company Orthox, which is at the forefront of the research.
Not only is spider silk incredibly strong. It is also very elastic and resilient. Most importantly, perhaps, it is also what scientists call “biocompatible”. In other words, human tissue can grow around and along it.
There was just one problem with this new miracle material, says Dr Skaer. Spiders don’t exactly produce a lot of it.
Aided by a grant of 1.6 million euros from the European Commission as part of its programme to promote research by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Dr Skaer and his colleagues came up with the perfect answer to this supply problem: silkworms. Although they do not produce quite the same thing as spider silk, silkworms provide silk which is similar enough to be used as a kind of raw material – and in much bigger quantities.
By adding an enzyme to this raw material, researchers made an important discovery. Its molecules could be aligned exactly as they are in spider silk, thus replicating its amazing qualities. The replicated silk was patented under the name “Spidrex”.
It is this material, with a name that sounds more like a children’s comic book hero or a new hi-tech sports clothing fabric than a medical breakthrough, which promises to revolutionise the treatment of joint injuries.
Spidrex’s combination of qualities gives it a unique dual function. Its strength makes it an ideal material to make inserts to replace, say, a damaged section of cartilage. At the same time, its “biocompatibility” makes it a perfect base on which the body can re-grow damaged or missing tissue. This allows the joint to heal naturally and completely in a way which often does not happen under current treatment methods.
At a time when, according to one study, the developed world is facing a 500% increase in knee replacement operations in the next two decades, the benefits of Spidrex in both medical and monetary terms are clear.
And those benefits are not limited to knee joints alone, although that is where current research is focused. Spidrex technology is potentially applicable to a wide range of injuries requiring cartilage and bone repair.
With clinical trials due to start in 2012, Dr Skaer is excited about the future.
“It’s quite simple, it’s quite straightforward and it’s quite cheap,” he says. “We’re very close to having a product which is ready for implantation in humans now, so it’s not science fiction, it’s really close to being a reality.”
Next time you see a spider, treat it with care.