One of the biggest trends in tech right now is material innovation, with the development of organic materials to replace their synthetic counterparts in everything from cosmetics to food to healthcare.
I recently met PrintyMed, a Latvian company developing biocompatible artificial spider silk for different medical applications.
PrintyMed is using spider silk produced by bacteria to create scaffolds for tissue engineering. These scaffolds can be used for various applications like building heart fibres, artificial nerves, synthetic meniscus, and artificial bones. The technology has potential uses in medical procedures such as skin reconstruction and bladder repair.
I spoke to Jekaterina Romanova last week to learn more.
Why spider silk?
Well, spider silk is biocompatible, strong (most often compared to steel), and elastic.
Around the world, researchers are developing use cases in industries like textiles, cosmetics, and wound dressing. Earlier this year we profiled German company AMSilk, developing synthetic spider silk for use in clothing, aviation, footwear, and automotive industries, as well as surgical biotech materials.
Printymed was spun out of the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis.
Its developed spider silk that is strong, biocompatible, safe for humans, has much surface area compared to its size, and doesn't cause a strong immune response.
In our bodies, cells live in a solid matrix called the extracellular matrix (ECM), which gives cells a structure to hold onto and lets them grow in 3D.
It also gives tissues certain qualities, like strength and stretchiness, that make them do their jobs (such as letting muscles stretch or keeping skin bouncy). Plus, it breaks down when needed (like during wound healing).
In tissue engineering, the ECM is replaced with different scaffolds made of biomaterials that act like the ECM in biology and mechanics.
While spider silk has a legacy of research, its commercial spin-out (excuse the pun) has struggled.
According to Romanova:
"Most companies are only producing spider silk for textiles, which is expensive at scale. Further, their material is not biocompatible, it cannot be used in the human body. We have developed a different production method."
The importance of biocompatibility
This biocompatibility is vital use cases such as organ creation. Currently, over 100.000 people are waiting for an organ transplant, and every 10 minutes, someone is added to the organ transplant waiting list, and 22 people die every day waiting. Worse, even if you get an organ, there is still a possibility that the organism will reject the transplanted organ.
Romanova explained that PrintyMed's scientists have developed a unique bioconjugation method for producing chemically modified artificial spider silk. The technique mimics the native process of spider silk formation and yields synthetic fibres that reproduce the properties of natural spider silk.
As a result, new functionalities are enabled by the chemical modification of designed spider silk proteins, with further research working to adapt the method to 3D printing technology.
The company has multiple LOIs with potential clients across various industries. This includes organ-on-a-chip solutions — I recently visited Cellbox Labs on a trip to Latvia, which is developing organs on a chip that are miniature organ replicas outside the human body.
Their focus is microbiome and gut on a chip that makes it easier to study the biological processes of drug development — shaping up for a future without animal testing.
The company is also testing the silk with rat blood and recently unveiled the third prototype of a 3D spider silk heart value.
Romanova believes that artificial silk will be available as a raw material in cosmetics and organ-on-a-chip solutions within a year, with other solutions coming in the future after completing the necessary clinical studies — although the company has done a fair amount of the leg work in academia.
Currently, the company is seeking fundraising to extend and expand its R&D and further proof of concept. This is a company to watch.
Lead image: PrintyMed. Photo: Uncredited.