The modified silk may also have the potential to aid repair following brain injury, researchers said.
Currently there is no cure for serious spinal cord trauma, in part because spinal nerves are unable to cross the scar tissue barrier and the cavity that forms in the cord after the injury.
Researchers from University of Oxford and University of Aberdeen in the UK discovered that modified silk from the Antheraea pernyi (AP) silk spinner had important properties desirable in a scaffold suitable for spinal repair.
The modified silk would be a ‘scaffold’ that bridges the spinal injury cavity, supporting nerve growth across damaged region, researchers said.
It has the correct rigidity: 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, they said.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that AP silk has a repeated ‘RGD’ 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 the silk does not trigger a response by the immune system cells that would be present in the spinal cord, therefore minimising inflammation, researchers said.
The AP silk degrades gradually over time. So, after it has supported the early growth of nerves across the injury site, the material dissolves gradually and these pioneer nerves take over the role as scaffold, supporting further nerve growth, they said.
Spinal injuries affect 250,000–500,000 people globally every year. It can have devastating effects for people who suffer them, including loss of motor and sensory function below the level of injury, and bladder, bowel, and sexual dysfunction, researchers said.