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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 October 2005, 23:15 GMT 00:15 UK
Flea protein may repair arteries
Flea (image CSIRO)
The protein is found in a flea's leg
A protein responsible for fleas' astonishing jumping power could be harnessed to repair damaged arteries.

Scientists have taken the gene that produces resilin and used it to create a super-strong rubbery polymer with potential use in surgery.

They actually extracted the gene from fruit flies and cultured resilin in large quantities in E.coli bacteria.

The work, by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, features in Nature.

If we could take something good out of the elasticity of the flea that benefits humans that would be most impressive
Professor Roger Greenhalgh

The outstanding mechanical properties of resilin were discovered four decades ago during studies of the flight systems of desert locusts and dragonflies.

Not only does it enable fleas to leap prodigious distances, it allows flies to beat their wings at incredible speed - up to 200 times a second.

It out-performs even the highest-grade rubber in its ability to withstand stress and bounces back into shape.

Very stretchy

Tests on strips of the artificial resilin showed it had similar properties - they could be stretched to more than three times their original length without breaking.

The researchers believe the artificial version of the polymer could have a wide range of applications in medicine and industry.

They suggested that it could be used to replace similar elastic material in the walls of damaged arteries.

Writing in Nature, the researchers said: "Resilin resembles cross-linked elastin in human arteries, which must also survive for the entire lifetime of the organism."

Professor Roger Greenhalgh, a vascular surgeon at Imperial College London, said restoring elasticity to arteries could potentially combat two forms of cardiovascular disease.

Atherosclerosis is a thickening and stiffening of the arteries, which can reduce blood flow, and eventually trigger a heart attack.


Aneurysmal disease occurs when the artery dilates and becomes weaker.

When this leads to a rupture of the main artery it is known as an aortic aneurysm, which causes death before admission to hospital in 75% of cases.

Professor Greenhalgh said drug therapies, such as using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin, had shown promise in stalling the loss of elasticity in the artery.

But he said a technique which could actively restore elasticity to stiffening blood vessels would be a major advance.

He told the BBC News website: "This research seems to be at a very early stage but if we could take something good out of the elasticity of the flea that benefits humans that would be most impressive.

"An aneurysm is a killer and if you can in any way interfere with the dilation process that would be very welcome."

However, Professor Julian Vincent, an expert in biomimetics - the study of the application of good designs from nature - said human elastin had been successfully recreated in the lab.

"I would like to know why this hasn't so far been used to repair damaged arteries," he said.

"My feeling is that resilin may have been over-sold as the ultimate elastic material."

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