Scientists Used Spider Silk To Create A New Class Of Cancer Vaccine

Microcapsules built out of artificial spider silk are being used to deliver cancer vaccines ‘directly to the heart of immune cells.’

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Spider silk is a fantastic material that’s extremely resistant and even has antibacterial properties. One of its biggest advantages in terms of medical applications is that spider silk is biocompatible, which means that it can coexist with living tissue without harming it.

Therefore, there’s little surprise that a team of researchers from several universities in Switzerland and Germany is thinking that spider silk would make a great method of vaccine delivery in the fight against cancer.

The trick with cancer vaccines is that, in order to work and strengthen the immune system, they need to stimulate a type of cells called T lymphocytes (T-cells), which specialize in sniffing out cancer cells.

The trouble is, this can only be done with the help of a tiny peptide — a molecule smaller than a protein and made up of a chain of amino acids, notes Encyclopædia Britannica, which gives a full account of the difference between peptides and proteins.

Because injecting this saving peptide by itself is not a solution, as it would be rapidly consumed by the body and wouldn’t even reach the T-cells it was meant to awaken, the team focused on devising a safe and efficient delivery system that could carry the molecule to its target.

Enter spider silk — or, more accurately, spider silk biopolymers, a synthetic replica created in the lab. According to Université de Genève (UNIGE) in Switzerland, this material was used to design microcapsules that provided a protective coating for the intrepid peptide and transported it “directly to the heart of immune cells.”

The technique is described in a study published in the journal Biomaterials and offers a novel method of drug delivery that could be used to combat not only cancer but a wide array of infectious diseases.

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The newly developed material based on spider silk is both non-toxic and highly resistant to degradation and can withstand the effects of light and heat, producing “a virtually indestructible capsule,” shows a UNIGE news release.

“We recreated this special silk in the lab to insert a peptide with vaccine properties,” says study co-author Thomas Scheibel, a renowned specialist in spider silk affiliated with the University of Bayreuth in Germany. “The resulting protein chains are then salted out to form injectable microparticles.”

As Scheibel explains, nature is a great source of inspiration for scientific development.

“More and more, scientists are trying to imitate nature in what it does best. This approach even has a name: bioinspiration, which is exactly what we have done here.”

One of the major benefits of the spider silk-based vaccination method is that it’s resistant to heat, while also being stable and easy to use. Since the cancer vaccine administered through this technique doesn’t need a cool storage environment, the product could be easily accessible in countries which lack the appropriate infrastructure to store vaccines in special freezers.

“We have demonstrated the effectiveness of a new vaccination strategy that is extremely stable, easy to manufacture and easily customizable,” says study lead author Prof. Carole Bourquin, a specialist in antitumor immunotherapies at UNIGE.

Going forward, the researchers are hoping to test the new method on larger antigens used in standard vaccines to see if the spider silk biopolymers can be used as a drug delivery system against viral diseases.