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Utah researcher helps artist make bulletproof skin

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A bio-art project to create bulletproof skin

has given a Utah State researcher even more hope his genetically

engineered spider silk can be used to help surgeons heal large

wounds and create artificial tendons and ligaments.

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Researcher Randy Lewis and his collaborators gained worldwide

attention recently when they found a commercially viable way to

manufacture silk fibers using goats and silkworms that had spider

genes inserted into their makeup.

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Spider silk is one of the strongest fibers known and five times

stronger than steel. Lewis’ fibers are not that strong but much

stronger than silk spun by ordinary worms.

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With Lewis’ help, Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi conducted an

experiment weaving a lattice of human skin cells and silk that was

capable of stopping bullets fired at reduced speeds.

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“Randy and I were moved by the same drive I think, curiosity about

the outcome of the project,” Essaidi said in an email interview.

“Both the artist and scientist are inherently curious

beings.”

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Lewis thought the project was a bit off the wall at first, Essaidi

acknowledged.

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“But in the end, what curious person can say no to a project like

this?” she said.

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Essaidi, who used a European genetics-in-art grant to fund her

project at the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Awards, initially

wanted to use Lewis’ spider silk from goats to capitalize on the

“grotesque factor” of the mammal-spider combination.

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But Lewis didn’t yet have enough of the spider goat silk to send

hundreds of yards to Essaidi. So he sent her spools of silk from

silkworms he had genetically engineered in a fashion similar to the

goats.

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Essaidi initially intended to fire .22 caliber bullets at the

“skin” stretched in a frame. But she decided to place the “skin” on

a special gelatin block used at the Netherlands Forensic

Institute.

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Using a high-speed camera, she showed a bullet fired at a reduced

speed piercing the skin woven with an ordinary worm’s silk But when

tested with Lewis’ genetically engineered worm’s silk grafted

between the epidermis and dermis, the skin didn’t break. Neither

was able to repel a bullet fired at normal speed from a .22 caliber

rifle.

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“We were more than a little surprised that the final skin kept the

bullet from going in there,” Lewis said of the tests at reduced

speed. “It still ended up 2 inches into the torso, so it would not

have saved your life. But without a doubt the most exciting part

for us is the fact that they were able to recreate the skin on top

of our fibers. It’s something we haven’t done. Nobody has worked in

that area.”

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Essaidi was intrigued by the concept of spider silk as armor, and

wanted to show that safety in its broadest sense is a relative

concept, hence bulletproof.

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“If human skin would be able to produce this thread, would we be

protected from bullets?” she wondered on her blog. “I want to

explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues

surrounding safety in a world with access to new

biotechnologies.”

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She said it is legend that Achilles was invulnerable in all of his

body except for his heel.

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“Will we in the near future due to biotechnology no longer need to

descend from a godly bloodline in order to have traits like

invulnerability?” she asked.

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Lewis downplayed the potential bulletproof applications of his

research.

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“I certainly would not discount that, but I don’t see that as a

tremendous application at the moment,” he said.

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He said bulletproof vests already exist. But being able to grow

cells and use the material to replace large amounts of human skin

could be significant for surgeons trying to cover large wounds, or

treat people with severe burns.

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He said the material’s strength and elasticity would enable doctors

to cover large areas without worrying about it ripping out – a big

advantage over small skin grafts.

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Lewis couldn’t give a time frame for such a use because it would

require FDA approval. But he hoped to do some animal testing within

two years, and noted spider silk already has proven very compatible

with the human body.

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The next step is to generate more material to test what cells will

grow on it – made easier with the “transgenic” silk worms and milk

from goat spiders.

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The real stuff is still the holy grail for fibers and textiles but

not the easiest to come by as evidenced by an 11-by-4 foot tapestry

unveiled two years ago at the New York Museum of Natural History

that took millions of spiders to complete.

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“We know some skin cells will grow (on our fibers), but can we get

cells that make ligaments and tendons grow,” Lewis said.

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He said it may be easier to use the genetically engineered silk to

make materials better than actual ligaments or tendons.

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Essaidi, meanwhile, said she has plenty of wild ideas but wants to

transplant the bulletproof skin.

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She said Geert Verbeke, director of Verbeke Foundation in Belgium,

the biggest Eco/BioArt museum, wants to wear the skin “as an ode to

BioArt.”

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Back at Utah State’s bio-manufacturing facility in Logan, Utah,

Lewis just started breeding for the next round of milking in

January. He has about three dozen of the genetically engineered

goats. He extracts proteins from the special milk then spins them

in a way that replicates the spider’s method, resulting in a

strong, light-weight fiber.

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“Nothing is as strong as the natural fiber, yet,” Lewis said of

spider silk. “But we are working on solving that

problem.”

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