By Archana Ramanujam and Svebor Kranjc
UTRECHT, Netherlands (Reuters) - What started as a work of art and science fiction may become a medical miracle that benefits burn patients, aids bone regeneration and one day may even make us bulletproof.
Dutch artist Jalila Essaïdi and cell biologist Abdoelwaheb El Ghalbzouri blended synthetic spider silk with human skin to produce a superstrong material that can stop a rifle bullet shot at half its regular speed.
Time to move over Kevlar? Not quite yet, but the new weave could turn out to have various medical uses.
Essaïdi's original art work is a lab sample of skin tissue stored in a refrigerator and accompanied by a video showing a gunshot test on the material.
The special skin will soon become part of Belgian art collector Geert Verbeke's unusual portfolio: he plans to graft part of the artist's creation into his arm later this year.
"It connects nature, science and art. If I put the art that Jalila has made on my arm, then I will always have it with me," said Verbeke, who has a particular interest in marrying arts and life sciences.
However, such grafted skin is still far from being truly bulletproof.
El Ghalbzouri said that spider silk is three times stronger than Kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests worn by the military and others in conflict zones. Since bulletproof vests are made from 33 layers of Kevlar, using more layers of spider silk could prove more effective in stopping a bullet, he said.
He and Essaïdi see more potential for the blended skin and silk when it comes to developing skin grafts for burn patients.
"This skin is much stronger and tougher than regular skin ... you can also make much larger pieces of skin" this way, the artist told Reuters. The layers of spider silk embedded in the skin allow the cultivation of larger sheets of tissue which literally outgrow their petri dishes, she added.
Some studies show that incorporating regular silk in burn wounds encourages faster healing and less scarring, she said, so now she wants to see whether incorporating spider silk in the treatment of burn wounds has similar results.
While human cells appear to adhere well to spider silk, more research is needed, El Ghalbzouri said.
"Next to skin, spider silk could be a very good scaffold for bone regeneration, cartilage, tendons, ligaments," he told Reuters in an interview, while other applications for the silk alone include surgical stitches, thanks to its strength and elasticity, as well as parachutes and parachute cords.
(Editing by Sara Webb and Paul Casciato)