Silk 'micrococoons' could be used in biotechnology and medicine

20/07/2017

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Researchers have manufactured microscopic versions of the cocoons spun by silkworms, which could be used to store sensitive proteins and other molecules for a wide range of uses.

 

By containing antibodies in micrococoons, as we did here, we could significantly extend not just their longevity, but also the range of antibodies at our disposal.
- Tuomas Knowles

Microscopic versions of the cocoons spun by silkworms have been manufactured by a team of researchers. The tiny capsules, which are invisible to the naked eye, can protect sensitive molecular materials, and could prove a significant technology in areas including food science, biotechnology and medicine.

The capsules were made at the University of Cambridge using a specially-developed microengineering process that combines the power of microfluidic manufacturing with the value of natural silk. The process mimics on the microscale the way in which Bombyx mori silkworms spin the cocoons from which natural silk is harvested.  The resulting micron-scale capsules comprise a solid and tough shell of silk nano-fibrils that surround and protect a centre of liquid cargo, and are more than thousand times smaller than those created by silkworms.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the team suggest that these “micrococoons” are a potential solution to a common technological problem: How to protect sensitive molecules that have potential health or nutritional benefits, but can easily degrade and lose these favourable qualities during storage or processing.

The study argues that sealing such molecules in a protective layer of silk could be the answer, and that silk micrococoons that are far too small to see (or taste) could be used to house tiny particles of beneficial molecular “cargo” in various products, such as cosmetics and food.

The same technology could also be used in pharmaceuticals to treat a wide range of severe and debilitating illnesses. In the study, the researchers successfully showed that silk micrococoons can increase the stability and lifetime of an antibody that acts on a protein implicated in neurodegenerative diseases.

The work was carried out by an international team of academics from the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Sheffield in the UK; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland; and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The study was led by Professor Tuomas Knowles, a Fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge and co-director of the Centre for Protein Misfolding Diseases.

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Image: The silkworm spins a silk cocoon around itself for protection during metamorphosis. Researchers have found that silk can also protect other precious molecular cargo.
Credit: 2017 Natural Materials Group


Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge
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