SILK from silkworms could be used to repair damaged spinal cords, according to a new study by scientists in Aberdeen.

Researchers say that modified silk from Asian wild silkworms is "well suited" to helping fix spinal cord trauma, which currently has no cure.

There are currently around 50,000 people in the UK with a serious spinal cord injury with 1,000 new cases arising every year.

Researchers working in collaboration with Oxford Biomaterials Ltd discovered that cleaned, sterilised silk from the Antheraea pernyi (AP) silk spinner had properties well suited to spinal repair.

Spinal injuries are nearly impossible to treat because nerves are unable to cross the scar tissue barrier and the cavity that forms in the cord after it has been cut.

According to the study, modified silk would be a used as a ‘scaffold’ that bridges the spinal injury cavity, supporting nerve growth across damaged region.

The team discovered that the modified AP silk had important properties desirable in a scaffold suitable for spinal repair.

If the "scaffold" is too rigid, it can harm the surrounding spinal cord tissue but if it is too soft the nerves would fail to grow across it. But using silk gets around this problem.

Additionally, the AP silk did not trigger a response by the immune system cells that would be present in the spinal cord, minimising inflammation.

Dr Wenlong Huang, from the University of Aberdeen, said: “Spinal injuries affect 250,000 – 500,000 people globally every year (WHO). It can have devastating effects for people who suffer them, including loss of motor and sensory function below the level of injury, and bladder, bowel, and sexual dysfunction.

"If we can work to find a solution, such as the use of AP silk, to improve their quality of life even slightly then it is beneficial. Intriguingly, AP silk may also have the potential to aid repair following brain injury.

“These are still early bench-based studies but they certainly seem to show that AP silk has fantastic properties especially suitable for spinal repair and we look forward to researching this further.”

Fritz Vollrath from Oxford University commented: “This is yet another, and so far by far the most important and exciting example of the value of silks and their derivatives in modern medicine with its emphasis on using natural regeneration for healing major as well as minor wounds.”

Dr Ann Rajnicek, from the University of Aberdeen, added: “Most people are familiar with the idea of silk surgical sutures that dissolve over time but the potential to use this modified silk material to promote nerve growth in the context of spinal cord injury has exciting prospects, especially when combined with other growth stimulating cues.”

The research was supported by the Institute of Medical Sciences of University of Aberdeen, Oxford Biomaterials Ltd. the Scottish Rugby Union, and RS McDonald Charitable Trust.