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Success Story:

Spider-man spins web to create revolutionary bone and cartilage replacement

Nick Skaer

Bone transplants are evolving. The traditional materials used, such as titanium and plastic, could soon be replaced by revolutionary new spider-silk technology. Developed by a group of SMEs, with the help of EU funding, this new material cannot only be used to repair damaged bones but also damaged cartilage - something truly revolutionary.

In 2005 Dr Nick Skaer, who was then the CEO of Oxford Biomaterials, the UK-based SME spearheading the project and parent company of Orthox Limited, the company set up by Dr Skaer in 2008 to commercialise the SilkBone technology, received EU funding for an entirely novel approach to bone transplants based on spider-silk technology.

'To replace damaged joints in the human body, titanium or ultra-durable plastic is normally used,' Dr Skaer explains. 'We wanted to change this, to create a material that has both the mechanical strength of human bone but also the regenerative capacity of human tissue.'

Spider silk is the ideal material, a natural protein that is six times as strong as high-tensile steel, resilient and bio-resorbable, meaning it breaks down within the human body. The idea, therefore, was simple: take the immense strength and resilience of spider silk and replicate these properties in silkworm silk, a far more abundant and cheap resource. The next step was to develop it into a 'tissue scaffold' for repairing human bone.

This incredibly ambitious concept formed a relatively small project, with EUR 1.6 million of funding spread over 2 years, which was extended to 2.5 years as the team had further applications to explore.

Spider-man weaves his web

'We began by studying the way spiders - Golden Orb Web spiders in particular - spin their webs, as that is what gives spider silk its super strength. We mimicked the spider's methodology which allowed us to reproduce its mechanical qualities in our tissue scaffolds made from silkworm silk.'

From there, the team mineralised the improved silkworm silk scaffolds with the mineral-constituent of human bone, giving rigidity and supporting tissue regeneration when implanted.

The resulting material, labelled Silkbone, is a bone substitute that is completely bio-compatible, remodels as human bone and can be reproduced in large quantities at minimal cost.

'We had achieved our ambitious goal. But we didn't stop there,' adds Dr Skaer.

Surprise discovery

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