Spider silk laid the groundwork for Anna Rising’s research: “This silk is stronger than any manufactured fiber. And our expanding expertise regarding ways in which spiders produce silk fibers facilitates several opportunities for medical applications.”

Rising and her colleagues can produce artificial spider silk. The process yields a kilometer-long silk fiber from just one liter of bacterial shake flask culture. Spider silk may be an attractive biomaterial for medical applications because it enables peripheral nerves regeneration in animal models. Silk produced by her research team has been successfully used as scaffolds for human, pluripotent, stem-cell cultures. The team continues its work in the regenerative field by exploring whether or not (i) silk scaffolds enable survival and differentiation of cardiac progenitor cells and (ii) spider silk facilitates spinal-cord regeneration.

Another research spin-off investigates spiders’ methods for controlling silk protein solubility. The N-terminal (NT) domain in spider silk protein plays a key role in fiber formation; it mediates (i) silk proteins solubility with high pH and (ii) rapid fiber formation with low/lowered pH.

Many newly developed drugs and drug candidates are proteins or peptides that are difficult to produce. But by using the NT domain, researchers hope to provide more efficient, inexpensive production methods.

“One example is SP-C33, a surfactant protein C analogue, which is being tested in clinical trials for treatment of neonatal respiratory distress syndrome. The NT domain enables more efficient production of this peptide, which, in turn, enabled two additional research spin-offs: (i) development of new surfactant mixtures for lung disease treatment and (ii) use of lung surfactant as a drug carrier for local treatment of pulmonary conditions.”

Rising is an associate professor in translational medicine at Karolinska Institutet and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. After her veterinary medicine education and some clinical work, she became a PhD student in 2003 and joined an EU project that targets artificial spider silk production for medical uses. Since then, spider silk forms the foundation of her research.

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Anna Rising