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Silk’s Revolutionary Role in Modern Medicine

Silk’s Revolutionary Role in Modern Medicine
Tufts researchers can turn a dry silk cocoon into a liquid filled with a structural protein. Photo: Jenna Schad

Led by Fiorenzo Omenetto, Silklab explores the potential of silk in biomedical applications. Silklab exhibited its research at Milan Design Week in April under the wing of the Italian brand Materially.

In the heart of Tufts University’s Medford/Somerville campus, there exists a hub of innovation, where silk takes center stage. Led by Fiorenzo Omenetto, the Silklab is revolutionizing modern medicine by harnessing the versatile properties of silk. From virus-sensing gloves to biodegradable surgical screws, the potential applications seem boundless.

Silk, an ancient material cherished for its strength and luster, has found a new purpose in biomedical engineering. Omenetto and his team extract the essential proteins from silkworm cocoons, transforming them into a liquid form ready for manipulation. This process unlocks a myriad of possibilities, allowing the creation of gels, coatings, and even printable inks, each with distinct functions and potential medical applications.

Recycled Silk Fabric, Repurposing Designer Waste

The lab’s commitment to sustainability is evident in its utilization of recycled silk fabric, repurposing designer waste into functional materials like sponges, substitute materials, inks, films, and more. Fiorenzo Omenetto, the lab’s director, highlights the importance of finding pragmatic solutions for environmental challenges and recognizing the significant role materials play in causing and resolving these issues.

Omenetto’s team receives pallets of discarded silk fabric, sourced from the fashion industry, which they transform into innovative biomedical materials. Through a meticulous process, they extract the essential proteins from the fabric, unlocking its potential for medical applications. This approach reduces waste and capitalizes on the inherent properties of silk to create biocompatible and biodegradable materials, aligning with the lab’s overarching goal of sustainability-driven innovation.

Fabric scraps await transformation at Silklab. Photo: Jenna Schad

READ our article on how researchers from Osaka University are using silk fiber-based bio-in for fabricating cell-laden structures with improved printability.

Tissue Engineering via Collaboration for FDA-approved Silk-based Therapies

Collaborating with David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering and chair of the biomedical engineering department at Tufts University; Omenetto explores silk’s potential in tissue engineering. Silk’s biocompatibility and biodegradability make it an ideal candidate for scaffolds that support tissue regeneration. This research has already borne fruit, with FDA-approved silk-based therapies for vocal cord repair and ongoing efforts to develop degradable medical devices, such as ear tubes embedded with antibiotics.

Kaplan and Omenetto’s partnership has yielded tangible results in the field of regenerative medicine. Their research endeavors have led to the development of silk-based therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), marking significant milestones in the translation of silk-based innovations from the laboratory to clinical settings. Notably, their silk-based therapies have been successfully employed in vocal cord repair, showcasing the efficacy and safety of silk-derived materials in medical applications.

Their ongoing efforts to engineer degradable medical devices, including ear tubes infused with antibiotics, underscore the versatility and potential of silk in addressing diverse healthcare needs. These endeavors represent a convergence of scientific expertise and technological innovation, with the ultimate goal of enhancing patient outcomes and advancing the field of regenerative medicine. 

The silk solution generated from textile waste takes on the color of the fabrics. Photo: Jenna Schad.

READ our article on biodegradable options for masks, including silk.

Preserving Bioactive Molecules like Vaccines and Antibiotics

Silk’s stabilizing properties extend beyond tissue engineering, offering a platform for preserving bioactive molecules like vaccines and antibiotics. Through collaborations with companies like Vaxess, silk-based innovations aim to address healthcare challenges, from vaccine distribution in remote areas to detecting drug-resistant bacteria.

Looking ahead, Omenetto envisions silk as a cornerstone of sustainable innovation in medicine and diverse fields like food production and insulation. With a forthcoming university-wide initiative on climate change under his leadership, Omenetto’s vision underscores silk’s potential to shape a greener, healthier future.

Regarding medical research, silk continues to inspire breakthroughs. Kaplan’s pioneering work on silk-based brain models provides a novel platform for studying neurodegenerative diseases, while three-dimensional models of other organs offer insights into long-term effects and potential treatments.

A sheet of silk containing diffractive optical elements, which change the shape of light, can be made in the Tufts lab using discarded silk from the fashion industry. Such optical features are used in everything from holograms to lasers. Photo: Jenna Schad.

In Summary: Extraction Process, Tissue Engineering, and the Future

Silklab repurposes recycled silk fabric into functional materials, aligning with efforts to find sustainable solutions for environmental challenges. Collaboration with David Kaplan focuses on using silk scaffolds for tissue regeneration, leading to FDA-approved therapies like silk-based vocal cord repair. Silk’s ability to stabilize bioactive molecules offers opportunities for vaccine distribution and detecting drug-resistant bacteria.

Omenetto envisions silk as a key player in sustainable innovation across various industries, including medicine, food production, and insulation. Kaplan’s work on silk-based brain models provides insights into neurodegenerative diseases, while three-dimensional organ models aid in studying long-term effects and treatments. Silk’s ancient origins meet modern technology, promising a future where sustainability and innovation converge for a greener, healthier world.

READ an article from Tufts Now called “Blood, Sweat, and Water: New Paper Analytical Devices Easily Track Health and Environment”