Spider silk challenges cost of biological lung surfactant

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

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iStock/sonsam

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Researchers at Sweden-based Karolinska Institutet have developed a synthetic lung surfactant using DNA sequences derived from spider silk proteins.

Lung surfactant is used to reduce the surface tension of preterm babies’ pulmonary alveoli, allowing them to be inflated at the moment of birth.

While these are traditionally biological analogues, a study published in Nature Communications​ compared Karolinska Institutet’s (KI) found synthetic lung surfactant derived from spider silk proteins equally effective at reducing the surface tension in an animal model of neonate respiratory disorders.

“The manufacturing process is based on the method spiders use to keep their extremely easily aggregated proteins soluble for silk-spinning,” ​said KI professor Janne Johansson.

The spider silk-based surfactant “works like natural surfactant but is produced more efficiently using a protein domain from spider silk proteins for increased yields of recombinant protein,” ​he said.

Pig lung vs spider silk

Curosurf, a surfactant drug also created by KI, is produced by isolating proteins from pig lungs.

According to Johannson, the drug development process is expensive, complicated and potentially risky.

KI’s spider silk-derived drug can be produced using simpler, cheaper methods,said the company.

This method has allowed researchers to produce potential biological drugs using the part of the spider protein that ensures protein solubility, predominantly the N-terminal domain.

“Since this production method is much simpler and cheaper, it might one day be possible to use our synthetic lung surfactant to treat more lung diseases than just preterm babies,” ​Johannson told us.

KBI plans to scale up production and compare the natural surfactants in clinical trials, before licensing out the technology.

“We are currently in discussions with companies, but at present I am not able to give any details,” ​Johannson told said.

As a medication, pulmonary surfactant is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines​.

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