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A heart made of spider silk

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University of Bayreuth, Press Release No 101/2017,11 August 2017

Researchers from the universities Bayreuth and Erlangen-Nuremberg created the basis for the artificial production of heart tissue: patients suffering from cardiac infarction soon might have a real chance to restore their damaged heart tissue thanks to spider silk and 3D-printing.


About 1.8 million people in Germany suffer from cardiac insufficiency according to Deutsche Herzstiftung e.V. (Germany Heart Foundation). Reason therefore usually is the irreversible loss of heart muscle cells caused by heart diseases like a heart attack. So far, there is no therapy known to invert this damage to the cells. A promising new path has now been shown by the team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel (Biomaterials) at University Bayreuth and the colleagues at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) led by Prof. Dr. Felix Engel (Experimental Renal and Cardiovascular Research): they developed heart muscle tissue based on spider silk scaffolds and cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells). Their discovery that biotechnologically produced spider silk hydrogels can serve as a base for the restoration of heart tissue has now been published in the journal “Advanced Functional Materials”.

The essential key to this artificial heart tissue is, according to the researchers, spider silk – or let’s better say the proteins that give silk its structure and mechanical stability: Fibroins. Prof. Dr. Felix Engel of the department for nephropathology of the university hospital of the FAU has shown that the silk of the Indian Silkmoth (an insect) is especially suitable as a scaffolding material to regrow heart tissue. Anyway, so far it hasn’t been possible to produce enough of the protein in constant quality. And that was where the University of Bayreuth came into play: “We managed to produce a recombined silk protein of the garden spider in bigger amounts at a high quality”, says Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel, research chair for Biomaterials at the University Bayreuth. Spider silk is an excellent material to produce hydrogels from which tissue-like structures can be produced via 3D-printing technology. The living cells of humans or animals implemented in such hydrogels are stabilized and stay functional. That’s the reason why both researchers joined forces to investigate spider silk based materials further.

Jana Petzold from the team in Erlangen and Tamara Aigner from the work group in Bayreuth studied how the designed spider silk protein eADF4(κ16) can be processed in order to accommodate heart muscle cells. To do so they applied a spider silk film on a glass substrate and placed different cells (cardiomyocytes, connective tissue cells, and blood vessel cells) thereon and could show that the spider silk substrate is perfectly suited to specifically support attachment of cardiomyocytes. The researchers could confirm that the factors leading to hypertrophy (the growth of muscle cells) also lead to an increased volume growth in heart muscle cells that have been bred on an eADF4(κ16) layer.

The work of the researchers from Erlangen and Bayreuth as well as the capability to print artificial silk proteins in 3D thus are first steps towards future production of functional heart tissue. Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel is optimistic: “functional heart tissue could get produced in the lab soon. The only question is when and how these results can get used in the clinics.”


‘Surface features of recombinant spider silk protein eADF4(κ16)-made materials are well-suited for cardiac tissue engineering’ veröffentlicht in der Zeitschrift Advanced Functional Materials (DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201701427).


Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel
Chair for Biomaterials
University of Bayreuth
95448 Bayreuth
E-mail: thomas.scheibel@uni-bayreuth.de
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-7360

Prof. Dr. Felix Engel
Experimental Renal and Cardiovascular Research
Universitätsklinikum Erlangen
91054 Erlangen
Phone: +49 (0)9131 / 85-25699
E-mail: felix.engel@fau.de

Editorial Office

Anja-Maria Meister
Press Contacts
University of Bayreuth
Universitätsstr. 30 / ZUV
95447 Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-5300
E-mail: anja.meister@uni-bayreuth.de

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