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Spider webs used for artificial tendons and ligaments
European 'Spiderman project' reports breakthrough

Uppsala (pte021/14.02.2003/12:10) - Synthetic material made from spider webs could soon be used to make artificial tendons and ligaments, doctors in Europe say.

Doctor Thomas Hartung, one of the project initiators and head of the European Commission Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, said that doctors hope to be able to make use of two of special properties of spiders silk: Its unusual strength and its flexibility.

"The spider web is thinner than a single cell yet it can carry the weight of an entire spider. If you could make a net out of it you could catch a passenger plane," Doctor Hartung said.

He noted that materials used as implants to replace tendons and ligaments in orthopaedic surgery need to have exactly this combination of properties.

Another advantage of spider silk is that it is not attacked by the human immune system. That means that implants made of the material do not induce inflammatory reactions, he said.

It was the coordinator of the Spiderman project Professor Wilhelm Engstroem from the department of pathology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, who made the observation that spider silk, which is made of proteins, does not attack the immune system.

"The possible uses for this durable material are enormous. It would also be far lighter and less cumbersome than the conventional alternatives," Engstroem said.

Spider silk could be used to produce lighter plaster casts and strong and long-lasting bandages.

Researchers are using two strategies to try to produce enough of the silk to make its use in orthopaedic surgery viable. These involve isolating the genes of different spiders in bacterial cells and also isolating cells from the spider gland and immortalising them to produce a cell culture.

There are eleven teams from six different countries involved in the project, including the world expert on spider silk, Fritz Vollrath, a professor of zoology at Oxford University.

The project, which is being funded by the European Commission to the tune of 6.5 million euros, also involves several small companies, which will exploit the commercial uses of the new synthetic spider webs.

Thomas Hartung:
Fritz Vollrath:

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