Science & Technology

Spider Silk New Tool against Infection say USU Undergrad Researchers

USU USTAR biology professor Randy Lewis, left, guides undergrad researchers Danielle Gaztambide and Breton Day in production of synthetic spider silk for medical applications.

Life-threatening infection is an ominous risk hanging over each and every invasive medical procedure. Needles, tubes, catheters and scopes, along with stents and other medical implants used in life-saving surgeries and treatments are critical tools for successful outcomes, but each poses potential danger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thousands of patients each year in the United States contract antibiotic-resistant, and sometimes deadly, bacterial infections during medical care.

Utah State University undergraduate researchers Breton Day and Danielle Gaztambide, under the mentorship of USU USTAR biology professor Randy Lewis, are investigating use of synthetic spider silk, pioneered in Lewis’ lab, to prevent infection. The students present their findings to state legislators and the public Jan. 26 during 2016 Undergraduate Research Day on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

“Infection is a huge problem in medical care,” says Day, a biology and nutrition science major from Orem, Utah. “The Lewis Lab’s breakthrough in the use of water as a solvent to produce synthetic spider silk makes it an ideal material for gels, adhesives and coatings for medical implants.”

Day is referring to the Lewis Lab’s discovery, publicly announced in March 2015, that water, rather than noxious chemicals, can be used as a solvent to convert the synthetic protein into usable products.

“This finding opened doors to use of the spider silk in the medical field,” says Gaztambide, a biological engineering major from Salt Lake City. “Our silk solutions are made from just protein and water. They don’t cause an immune response or inflammation when used in the human body, which greatly reduces the risk of infection and offers a tremendous advantage over conventional materials.”

As an added bonus, synthetic spider silk makes über-strong, moisture-resistant adhesives.

“The spider silk adhesive can be stronger than Gorilla glue and Super glue on many substrates important to the medical field,” Day says.

Adhesive strength is critical, he and Gaztambide say, for newer tubes, shunts and other implant devices crafted from silicone, which stubbornly resists many adhesives.

“Silicone is an important alternative to latex, to which many people are allergic,” the students say.

Day and Gaztambide are among about 30 Aggies selected to display research posters at the annual event, held for the past 15 years at the kick-off of the state’s legislative session.

Lewis says the students will also present their findings at the 2016 Material Research Society Spring Meeting March 28-April 1 in Phoenix. He says the two have already successfully articulated their research to a potential medical materials manufacturer.

“We stand back and let these undergrads present,” he says. “They’ve participated in each step of the research and they know their stuff.”

Day, who graduated from Utah’s Mountain View High School in 2010, became interested in Lewis’ research after reading an article about the professor’s efforts in creating recombinant spider silk proteins from transgenic goats, bacteria, alfalfa and silkworms.

“It sounded way cool, so I started in the lab as a volunteer and was later hired as an undergraduate researcher,” he says.

Gaztambide, who graduated from Utah’s Judge Memorial Catholic High School in 2012, learned about USU’s synthetic spider silk research from her advisors in the Department of Biological Engineering.

“My interest is in biomedical engineering, so getting involved in the Lewis Lab sounded like a great way to get hands-on experience,” she says. “Research really encourages you to think and be innovative.”

Related links:

Contact: Randy Lewis, 435-797-797-9291,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

Gaztambide and Day are among about 30 USU students presenting to legislators and the public at '2016 Undergraduate Research Day' on Utah’s Capitol Hill Tuesday, Jan. 26.


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