Silk could soon be used in medical implants instead of metal alloys

Silk minimises the pain involved in having implants for broken bones, according to scientists

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The Independent Online

In a medical breakthrough that could be straight from the pages of a fairy tale, scientists have made steps towards replacing metal implants used to mend broken bones with screws spun by silkworms.

The metal alloys currently used to make plates and screws sometimes hinder the healing process, as they can corrode in a patient's body, are sensitive to heat, and often need to be surgically removed.

While clinicians have used silk in bandages and medical textiles for years, scientists have now proven in animal trials that silk screws could save patients pain and discomfort by offering a better healing process.

This is because the fastenings as are easier to implant in the body, and fit better into the bone.

As the fibres silkworms produce are as strong as steel weight-for-weight, the strength and durability offered by metal alloy implants won't be lost.

The screws are also ‘biocompatible’, meaning the proteins in silk closely resemble those present in the human body. Silk screws are therefore absorbed as the patient heals, saving them from having further operations and making it less likely the area will become swollen and irritated.

“The silk screws remained in the bone for up to eight weeks before gradually being reabsorbed by the body, eliminating the need for surgical removal. And since silk is invisible on X-ray radiographs, the screws don't obstruct doctors' views of the healing process around the wound,” reads the paper published last month in the 'Nature Communications' journal by US scientists from Tufts University and the Harvard Medical School.

Meanwhile, other teams of scientists are attempting to make it easier to produce the silk itself, by moving away from relying on sometimes unpredictable insects.

By reproducing the fibres using other methods, researchers can eradicate problems including silk-producing spiders attempting to eat each other rather than spin, according the USA Today.

German company AMSilk, a finalist in last year's Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year competition, has successfully genetically modified a harmless strain of E. coli bacterium so they create spider silk protein.

The silk has so far been used in silicone breast implants. The silk coating shielded implants from immune attack, which often triggers scarring, swelling and other side effects, according to the newspaper.