Spider silk research gives student confidence, career options
Published December 2016
A team of North Dakota State University students and faculty are researching ways to use spider silk for medical treatments.
Catherine Gruat-Henry is a graduate research assistant in an NDSU lab led by Amanda Brooks, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences. It’s a multidisciplinary lab, with undergraduate and graduate students studying mechanical and electrical engineering, pharmacy, animal science, and medical laboratory science. It’s a well-rounded group figuring out ways to use spider silk’s many properties for various projects.
Spider silk proteins are natural organic materials that allow a spider to create different micro-scale sized silk fibers with different mechanical properties. The features include things like strength, elasticity and heat resistance.
Gruat-Henry’s focus is on the electrical properties of spider silk, but she is active on other projects as well.
“Untreated spider silk acts as an insulator,” Gruat-Henry said. “By modifying the silk with, for example, metallic nanoparticles, it can become a flexible conductor.”
Another avenue of research is drug delivery to human patients. Spider silk doesn’t cause the usual immune response to foreign objects in humans, so drugs and devices can be safely inserted during surgeries or when used to attack cancer cells.
Gruat-Henry wasn’t used to rigorous research until coming to NDSU in fall 2015. She joined the master’s program in electrical and computer engineering after earning an engineering undergraduate degree at the University of Stuttgart, 50 miles north of her hometown of Albstadt-Ebingen, Germany. Her emphasis was on engineering cybernetics, or the control of systems using technology in both biological systems and machines.
Now she enjoys a hands-on experience in the lab. On a recent Monday morning she peered inside a golden orb spider, searching for the glands that produce drag-line silk. They are the strands that give spider webs their strength.
She is trying to find a way to recreate the protein artificially without a tedious extraction process that includes sedating the spiders. The process doesn’t harm the spiders, but it is time-consuming work and the fiber can vary slightly between spiders and even from the same spider.
After collecting the correct drag-line silk gland, Gruat-Henry is ready to produce the proteins. She used her engineering background to design 3D-printed microfilament devices to produce fibers that mimic the properties of the silk.
The research team’s work has even taken on an entrepreneurial twist. The team of students has created Spinthesis, a company trying to imitate spider silk to create a versatile, sustainable and biodegradable material. One of the company’s goals is to use spider silk fibers for pressure-responsive compression bandages. Current bandages don’t adapt to position- or pressure-changes in the wrapped limb, causing the bandage to slip, or cut off blood circulation. The newly formed start-up is working on developing intelligent bandages that combine adjustable compression with elasticity for movement.
The research has helped strengthen her presentation and mentoring skills outside the lab. In April, Gruat-Henry was part of a team that presented research on “Using Engineering to Unravel the Mystery of Spider Silk Formation” at the annual Rocky Mountain Bioengineering Symposium.
This spring she will mentor young women who are interested in careers in mathematics, science, engineering and medical fields. The Expanding Your Horizons workshop is set for April.
Gruat-Henry hasn’t decided if she will pursue a professional or academic career. She’s considering a biomedical-focused degree. Beginning in fall 2017, NDSU will offer a two-year Master of Science degree and a four-year Doctor of Philosophy degree in biomedical engineering. Thanks to her experience in NDSU labs, Gruat-Henry has many career options.
“I’m an older-than-average student and I’ve always felt like I’m not where I’m supposed to be in life,” Gruat-Henry said. “Now I feel like I have found my path, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”