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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006, 22:58 GMT 23:58 UK
Silk 'could help repair nerves'
The cells grow along silk fibres

Silk may be able to help repair damaged nerves, according to scientists.

The UK researchers have shown how nerve cells can grow along bundles of a special fibre, which has properties similar to spider silk.

They hope the silk will encourage cell re-growth across severed nerves, possibly even in damaged spinal cords.

A picture of nerve cells growing on the silk is one of the winning images in this year's Wellcome Trust Biomedical Image Awards.

It is one of 26 images - many revealing objects invisible to the naked eye - captured from medical research programmes across Britain.

Bridging the gap

The silk, dubbed Spidrex, comes from silk worms that have been modified to give the fibres special properties that help cells to bind.

Professor John Priestley, a neuroscientist from Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, London, and lead researcher, said the silk acted as a scaffold on which nerve cells could grow.

The team has tested the silk in tissue culture (shown in the winning image) and in animals - and in both cases, said Professor Priestly, the results had been good.

Blood vessels in the retina, by Freya Mowat. See other winners

He added: "The picture shows two things: reddish coloured processors, which are the nerve fibres growing along the silk; and blue supporting cells, called Schwann cells, which are very important in supporting nerve regeneration.

"And in animal studies we have shown, both in the spinal cord and in peripheral nerves, the silk fibres support nerve growth."

Professor Priestley said that one of the benefits of the silk was that it could be assembled into complex tubes designed to fit the nerves or the length of the gap that needed bridging.

The team hopes the silk can be used to treat patients whose peripheral nerves - the nerves that control muscle and provide sensation - have been severed: someone who has received a bad cut to the hand, for example.

A more ambitious goal, explained Professor Priestly, would be to use the silk to help repair damaged spinal cords, but this would be much more complex, he stressed.

The award-winning images are on display at the Wellcome Library, 210 Euston Rd, London, from 13 July

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Photos get the flavour of science
28 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature

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