Protecting preemies with spider silk

A protein spiders use to spin their webs could prove valuable in biotech manufacturing.

The key to strengthening the lungs of premature babies may be held by spiders—namely, the way they spin their webs. Scientists led by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden are synthesizing a drug commonly used in preterm babies by mimicking the production of spider silk. In so doing, they’re proposing an alternate production method that they believe will be safer and less expensive than methods currently used to make the product.

The drug, called surfactant, was developed by scientists at Karolinska more than 40 years ago and is used to inflate the lungs of preemies at the moment of birth. It does that by reducing the tension in pulmonary alveoli—the structures in the lung that allow for respiration. The drug, marketed as Curosurf by Chiesi in North Carolina, is currently made by isolating proteins from pig lungs, according to a press release from Karolinska.

The new manufacturing process is based on the method spiders use to make proteins soluble enough to spin into webs, said Jan Johansson, a professor at Karolinska Institutet's Department of Neurobiology, in the release. At the heart of that process is the “N-terminal domain” of a protein that ensures solubility. The scientists used bacteria to produce that part of the protein. They compared their version of surfactant to one that’s currently on the market and found it to be equally effective, they said.

Spiders have long been of interest to the biopharma industry, but mainly for their venom. Some researchers have studied proteins in spider venom to see if they might have pain-relieving effects, including a team at Queensland University in Australia that won some funding from Johnson & Johnson a few years back.

If spiders can help bring down the costs of biotech manufacturing, the Karolinska invention will surely be welcome in the biopharma industry. The high cost of producing drugs in living organisms is often cited as part of the justification for the high prices charged for biotech products.

The Karolinska team has not estimated the exact savings their method might impart, but they believe they can link the spider protein to other proteins to make a plethora of biotech drugs in an efficient way. “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," Johansson said in the release.