Silk could repair damaged spinal cords, scientists claim

Silk could help repair damaged spinal cords by producing material which acts as a ‘scaffold’, scientists claim.

A team of British researchers found cleaned, sterilised silk from a breed of moths had properties well suited to spinal repair.

A modified version of the lightweight material could support nerve growth across damaged regions, they believe.  

Dr Fritz Vollrath, from Oxford University, said the findings are the ‘most important and exciting’ conducted on the values of silk yet.

A team of British researchers found cleaned, sterilised silk from a breed of moths had properties well suited to spinal repair

Both he and a team of researchers at Aberdeen University, believe derivatives of silk can aid natural regeneration for major spinal injuries.

Spinal injuries 

Around 50,000 people in the UK have a serious injury to the spinal column, while figures estimate there are around 250,000 in the US, figures show. 

Study author Dr Wenlong Huang, from the University of Aberdeen, said: ‘It can have devastating effects for people who suffer them.’

He said they can lead to a loss of motor and sensory function below the level of injury, bladder and bowel problems and sexual dysfunction.

There is currently no cure for serious traumas because the nerves can’t cross the scar tissue barrier and the cavity forming in the column after the injury.

What did they find? 

The team discovered that modified Antheraea pernyi silk had important properties desirable in a ‘scaffold’ suitable for spinal repair.


Legend puts the discovery of silk down to an empress thousands of years ago, who unravelled the fine threads after the cocoon of a silkworm fell in her tea.

But the luxury thread, prized for its strength, light weight and versatility, has been given new properties, thanks to the work of Chinese scientists.

By feeding silkworms carbon nanotubes and graphene, researchers enabled the insects to spin ‘super silk’ – far tougher, more durable and conductive than normal threads – opening up new possibilities for fabrics, medical implants and more.

Silk is produced by the caterpillars of the silk moth, as they feed on the leaves of mulberry trees.

Their findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, were derived from petri dish tests on rat cells.

Dr Huang added: ‘If we can work to find a solution, such as the use of AP silk, to improve their quality of life even slightly then it is beneficial.

‘These are still early bench-based studies but they certainly seem to show that AP silk has fantastic properties especially suitable for spinal repair.’ 

Why AP silk? 

It has the correct rigidity, as if it is too rigid it can harm the surrounding spinal cord tissue but if it is too soft the nerves would fail to grow across it.

The AP silk has a chemical sequence on its surface that binds to receptors on the nerve cells, encouraging them to attach to the material and grow along it.

Additionally, it didn’t trigger a response by the immune system cells that would be present in the spinal cord, therefore minimising inflammation.

Finally, the AP silk degrades gradually over time. This means, after it has supported the early growth of nerves across the injury site the material dissolves.

These nerves then take over the role as scaffold, supporting further nerve growth in the sight of injury.