For the half a million people who are affected each year, spinal cord injury can be life-changing. It can lead to loss of movement and sensation, can alter bladder control and sexual function, and can cause pain.

The higher up the spine the damage, the greater the effects tend to be, and the bigger the impact on quality of life. There are currently no treatments for serious spinal cord injury.

An ideal material

However, a potential breakthrough could come from an unlikely source – the silkworm Antheraea pernyi.

Scar tissue forms when the spinal cord is damaged, which prevents the natural regrowth of nerves. However, the silk has ideal properties for use in spinal cord repair. It can be used as a scaffold, allowing new nerves to grow over the damaged area.The silk has been found to be able to support the growth of new nerves, but won’t cause further damage to nearby tissue.

Nerve cell receptors can bind to the repeating pattern of peptides on the surface of the silk, which encourages the growth of the nerves along the silk structure. In addition, the silk does not cause the immune cells in the spinal cord to react, so there is minimal inflammation. Over time the silk will gradually dissolve, leaving the initial nerve growth as a new scaffold for future growth.

Future prospects

Combining this new technique of promoting nerve growth with other growth stimulation techniques has the potential to lead to the development of new treatments for spinal cord injuries.

There are huge costs involved in managing spinal cord injuries and the changes in lifestyle they cause.  If new treatments can be developed using this technique it has the potential to be a big money saver for public health services.