The study and copying of nature’s models, systems, or elements to address complex human challenges is known as “biomimetics.” Five hundred years ago, an elderly Italian polymath spent months looking at the soaring flight of birds. The result was Leonardo da Vinci’s biomimetic Codex on the Flight of Birds, one of the foundational texts in the science of aerodynamics. It’s the science that elevated the Wright Brothers and has yet to peak.
Today, biomimetics is everywhere. Shark-inspired swimming trunks, gecko-inspired adhesives, and lotus-inspired water-repellents are all taken from observing the natural world. After millions of years of evolution, nature has quite a few tricks up its sleeve. They are tricks we can learn from. And now, thanks to some spider DNA and clever genetic engineering, we have another one to add to the list.
The elusive spider silk
We’ve known for a long time that spider silk is remarkable, in ways that synthetic fibers can’t emulate. Nylon is incredibly strong (it can support a lot of force), and Kevlar is incredibly tough (it can absorb a lot of force). But neither is both strong and tough. In all artificial polymeric fibers, strength and toughness are mutually exclusive, and so we pick the material best for the job and make do.
Spider silk, a natural polymeric fiber, breaks this rule. It is somehow both strong and tough. No surprise, then, that spider silk is a source of much study.The problem, though, is that spiders are incredibly hard to cultivate — let alone farm. If you put them together, they will attack and kill each other until only one or a few survive. If you put 100 spiders in an enclosed space, they will go about an aggressive, arachnocidal Hunger Games. You need to give each its own space and boundaries, and a spider hotel is hard and costly. Silkworms, on the other hand, are peaceful and productive. They’ll hang around all day to make the silk that has been used in textiles for centuries. But silkworm silk is fragile. It has very limited use.
The elusive – and lucrative – trick, then, would be to genetically engineer a silkworm to produce spider-quality silk. So far, efforts have been fruitless. That is, until now.
We can have silkworms creating silk six times as tough as Kevlar and ten times as strong as nylon.
Junpeng Mi and his colleagues working at Donghua University, China, used CRISPR gene-editing technology to recode the silk-creating properties of a silkworm. First, they took genes from Araneus ventricosus, an East Asian orb-weaving spider known for its strong silk. Then they placed these complex genes – genes that involve more than 100 amino acids – into silkworm egg cells. (This description fails to capture how time-consuming, technical, and laborious this was; it’s a procedure that requires hundreds of thousands of microinjections.)
This had all been done before, and this had failed before. Where Mi and his team succeeded was using a concept called “localization.” Localization involves narrowing in on a very specific location in a genome. For this experiment, the team from Donghua University developed a “minimal basic structure model” of silkworm silk, which guided the genetic modifications. They wanted to make sure they had the exactly right transgenic spider silk proteins. Mi said that combining localization with this basic structure model “represents a significant departure from previous research.” And, judging only from the results, he might be right. Their “fibers exhibited impressive tensile strength (1,299 MPa) and toughness (319 MJ/m3), surpassing Kevlar’s toughness 6-fold.”
A world of super-materials
Mi’s research represents the bursting of a barrier. It opens up hugely important avenues for future biomimetic materials. As Mi puts it, “This groundbreaking achievement effectively resolves the scientific, technical, and engineering challenges that have hindered the commercialization of spider silk, positioning it as a viable alternative to commercially synthesized fibers like nylon and contributing to the advancement of ecological civilization.”
Around 60 percent of our clothing is made from synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, and acrylic. These plastics are useful, but often bad for the environment. They shed into our waterways and sometimes damage wildlife. The production of these fibers is a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, we have a “sustainable, eco-friendly high-strength and ultra-tough alternative.” We can have silkworms creating silk six times as tough as Kevlar and ten times as strong as nylon.
We shouldn’t get carried away. This isn’t going to transform the textiles industry overnight. Gene-edited silkworms are still only going to produce a comparatively small amount of silk – even if farmed in the millions. But, as Mi himself concedes, this is only the beginning. If Mi’s localization and structure-model techniques are as remarkable as they seem, then this opens up the door to a great many supermaterials.
Nature continues to inspire. We had the bird, the gecko, and the shark. Now we have the spider-silkworm. What new secrets will we unravel in the future? And in what exciting ways will it change the world?
When Drew Weissman received a call from Katalin Karikó in the early morning hours this past Monday, he assumed his longtime research partner was calling to share a nascent, nagging idea. Weissman, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Karikó, a professor at Szeged University and an adjunct professor at UPenn, both struggle with sleep disturbances. Thus, middle-of-the-night discourses between the two, often over email, has been a staple of their friendship. But this time, Karikó had something more pressing and exciting to share: They had won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The work for which they garnered the illustrious award and its accompanying $1,000,000 cash windfall was completed about two decades ago, wrought through long hours in the lab over many arduous years. But humanity collectively benefited from its life-saving outcome three years ago, when both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines against COVID were found to be safe and highly effective at preventing severe disease. Billions of doses have since been given out to protect humans from the upstart viral scourge.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” said Katalin Karikó. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
Unlocking the power of mRNA
Weissman and Karikó unlocked mRNA vaccines for the world back in the early 2000s when they made a key breakthrough. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially instructions for cells’ ribosomes to make specific proteins, so in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers started wondering if sneaking mRNA into the body could trigger cells to manufacture antibodies, enzymes, or growth agents for protecting against infection, treating disease, or repairing tissues. But there was a big problem: injecting this synthetic mRNA triggered a dangerous, inflammatory immune response resulting in the mRNA’s destruction.
While most other researchers chose not to tackle this perplexing problem to instead pursue more lucrative and publishable exploits, Karikó stuck with it. The choice sent her academic career into depressing doldrums. Nobody would fund her work, publications dried up, and after six years as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She was going backward.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó told Stat in 2020. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
A tale of tenacity
Collaborating with Drew Weissman, a new professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in the late 1990s helped provide Karikó with the tenacity to continue. Weissman nurtured a goal of developing a vaccine against HIV-1, and saw mRNA as a potential way to do it.
“For the 20 years that we’ve worked together before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared, it was the two of us literally side by side at a bench working together,” Weissman said in an interview with Adam Smith of the Nobel Foundation.
In 2005, the duo made their 2023 Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough, detailing it in a relatively small journal, Immunity. (Their paper was rejected by larger journals, including Science and Nature.) They figured out that chemically modifying the nucleoside bases that make up mRNA allowed the molecule to slip past the body’s immune defenses. Karikó and Weissman followed up that finding by creating mRNA that’s more efficiently translated within cells, greatly boosting protein production. In 2020, scientists at Moderna and BioNTech (where Karikó worked from 2013 to 2022) rushed to craft vaccines against COVID, putting their methods to life-saving use.
The future of vaccines
Buoyed by the resounding success of mRNA vaccines, scientists are now hurriedly researching ways to use mRNA medicine against other infectious diseases, cancer, and genetic disorders. The now ubiquitous efforts stand in stark contrast to Karikó and Weissman’s previously unheralded struggles years ago as they doggedly worked to realize a shared dream that so many others shied away from. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were brave enough to walk a scientific path that very well could have ended in a dead end, and for that, they absolutely deserve their 2023 Nobel Prize.
Unwanted pregnancy can now be added to the list of preventions that antibodies may be fighting in the near future. For decades, really since the 1980s, engineered monoclonal antibodies have been knocking out invading germs — preventing everything from cancer to COVID. Sperm, which have some of the same properties as germs, may be next.
Not only is there an unmet need on the market for alternatives to hormonal contraceptives, the genesis for the original research was personal for the then 22-year-old scientist who led it. Her findings were used to launch a company that could, within the decade, bring a new kind of contraceptive to the marketplace.
It’s Suruchi Shrestha’s research — published in Science Translational Medicine in August 2021 and conducted as part of her dissertation while she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — that could change the future of contraception for many women worldwide. According to a Guttmacher Institute report, in the U.S. alone, there were 46 million sexually active women of reproductive age (15–49) who did not want to get pregnant in 2018. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, Shrestha’s research could, indeed, be life changing for millions of American women and their families.
Now a scientist with NextVivo, Shrestha is not directly involved in the development of the contraceptive that is based on her research. But, back in 2016 when she was going through her own problems with hormonal contraceptives, she “was very personally invested” in her research project, Shrestha says. She was coping with a long list of negative effects from an implanted hormonal IUD. According to the Mayo Clinic, those can include severe pelvic pain, headaches, acute acne, breast tenderness, irregular bleeding and mood swings. After a year, she had the IUD removed, but it took another full year before all the side effects finally subsided; she also watched her sister suffer the “same tribulations” after trying a hormonal IUD, she says.
For contraceptive use either daily or monthly, Shrestha says, “You want the antibody to be very potent and also cheap.” That was her goal when she launched her study.
Shrestha unshelved antibody research that had been sitting idle for decades. It was in the late 80s that scientists in Japan first tried to develop anti-sperm antibodies for contraceptive use. But, 35 years ago, “Antibody production had not been streamlined as it is now, so antibodies were very expensive,” Shrestha explains. So, they shifted away from birth control, opting to focus on developing antibodies for vaccines.
Over the course of the last three decades, different teams of researchers have been working to make the antibody more effective, bringing the cost down, though it’s still expensive, according to Shrestha. For contraceptive use either daily or monthly, she says, “You want the antibody to be very potent and also cheap.” That was her goal when she launched her study.
The problem with contraceptives for women, Shrestha says, is that all but a few of them are hormone-based or have other negative side effects. In fact, some studies and reports show that millions of women risk unintended pregnancy because of medical contraindications with hormone-based contraceptives or to avoid the risks and side effects. While there are about a dozen contraceptive choices for women, there are two for men: the condom, considered 98% effective if used correctly, and vasectomy, 99% effective. Neither of these choices are hormone-based.
On the non-hormonal side for women, there is the diaphragm which is considered only 87 percent effective. It works better with the addition of spermicides — Nonoxynol-9, or N-9 — however, they are detergents; they not only kill the sperm, they also erode the vaginal epithelium. And, there’s the non-hormonal IUD which is 99% effective. However, the IUD needs to be inserted by a medical professional, and it has a number of negative side effects, including painful cramping at a higher frequency and extremely heavy or “abnormal” and unpredictable menstrual flows.
The hormonal version of the IUD, also considered 99% effective, is the one Shrestha used which caused her two years of pain. Of course, there’s the pill, which needs to be taken daily, and the birth control ring which is worn 24/7. Both cause side effects similar to the other hormonal contraceptives on the market. The ring is considered 93% effective mostly because of user error; the pill is considered 99% effective if taken correctly.
“That’s where we saw this opening or gap for women. We want a safe, non-hormonal contraceptive,” Shrestha says. Compounding the lack of good choices, is poor access to quality sex education and family planning information, according to the non-profit Urban Institute. A focus group survey suggested that the sex education women received “often lacked substance, leaving them feeling unprepared to make smart decisions about their sexual health and safety,” wrote the authors of the Urban Institute report. In fact, nearly half (45%, or 2.8 million) of the pregnancies that occur each year in the US are unintended, reports the Guttmacher Institute. Globally the numbers are similar. According to a new report by the United Nations, each year there are 121 million unintended pregnancies, worldwide.
The early work on antibodies as a contraceptive had been inspired by women with infertility. It turns out that 9 to 12 percent of women who are treated for infertility have antibodies that develop naturally and work against sperm. Shrestha was encouraged that the antibodies were specific to the target — sperm — and therefore “very safe to use in women.” She aimed to make the antibodies more stable, more effective and less expensive so they could be more easily manufactured.
Since antibodies tend to stick to things that you tell them to stick to, the idea was, basically, to engineer antibodies to stick to sperm so they would stop swimming. Shrestha and her colleagues took the binding arm of an antibody that they’d isolated from an infertile woman. Then, targeting a unique surface antigen present on human sperm, they engineered a panel of antibodies with as many as six to 10 binding arms — “almost like tongs with prongs on the tongs, that bind the sperm,” explains Shrestha. “We decided to add those grabbers on top of it, behind it. So it went from having two prongs to almost 10. And the whole goal was to have so many arms binding the sperm that it clumps it” into a “dollop,” explains Shrestha, who earned a patent on her research.
Suruchi Shrestha works in the lab with a colleague. In 2016, her research on antibodies for birth control was inspired by her own experience with side effects from an implanted hormonal IUD.
UNC - Chapel Hill
The sperm stays right where it met the antibody, never reaching the egg for fertilization. Eventually, and naturally, “Our vaginal system will just flush it out,” Shrestha explains.
“She showed in her early studies that [she] definitely got the sperm immotile, so they didn't move. And that was a really promising start,” says Jasmine Edelstein, a scientist with an expertise in antibody engineering who was not involved in this research. Shrestha’s team at UNC reproduced the effect in the sheep, notes Edelstein, who works at the startup Be Biopharma. In fact, Shrestha’s anti-sperm antibodies that caused the sperm to agglutinate, or clump together, were 99.9% effective when delivered topically to the sheep’s reproductive tracts.
Going forward, Shrestha thinks the ideal approach would be delivering the antibodies through a vaginal ring. “We want to use it at the source of the spark,” Shrestha says, as opposed to less direct methods, such as taking a pill. The ring would dissolve after one month, she explains, “and then you get another one.”
Engineered to have a long shelf life, the anti-sperm antibody ring could be purchased without a prescription, and women could insert it themselves, without a doctor. “That's our hope, so that it is accessible,” Shrestha says. “Anybody can just go and grab it and not worry about pregnancy or unintended pregnancy.”
Her patented research has been licensed by several biotech companies for clinical trials. A number of Shrestha’s co-authors, including her lab advisor, Sam Lai, have launched a company, Mucommune, to continue developing the contraceptives based on these antibodies.
And, results from a small clinical trial run by researchers at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine show that a dissolvable vaginal film with antibodies was safe when tested on healthy women of reproductive age. That same group of researchers last year received a $7.2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for further research on monoclonal antibody-based contraceptives, which have also been shown to block transmission of viruses, like HIV.
“As the costs come down, this becomes a more realistic option potentially for women,” says Edelstein. “The impact could be tremendous.”
This article was first published by Leaps.org in December, 2022. It has been lightly edited with updates for timeliness.