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Bulletproof human skin underway

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A .22 calibre bullet hitting but not breaking the "bulletproof" skin.

Scientists working on a bio-art project to create bulletproof skin are using genetically engineered goat and silkworms to make a strong material for artificial tendons and ligaments.

After their bio-art project for the creation of a bulletproof skin, Randy Lewis and his colleagues are planning to use the same bioengineering technology to make very strong fibers for surgical use, Associated Press reported

The Utah scientists recently gained worldwide attention after finding a commercially viable way to manufacture silk fibers using goats and silkworms that had spider genes inserted into their makeup.

Spider silk is one of the strongest fibers known and five times stronger than steel. Lewis’ fibers are not that strong but much stronger than silk spun by ordinary worms.

With Lewis’ help, Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi conducted an experiment weaving a lattice of human skin cells and silk that was capable of stopping bullets fired at reduced speeds.

Because the researchers could not produce enough spider goat silk, they used silk from silkworms, genetically engineered in a fashion similar to goats.

For the test, Essaidi placed the “skin” on a special gelatin block used at the Netherlands Forensic Institute.

Using a high-speed camera, Essaidi showed a 22 caliber bullet fired at a reduced speed piercing the skin woven with an ordinary worm’s silk, but when tested with Lewis’ genetically engineered worm’s silk grafted between the epidermis and dermis, the skin didn’t break.

“We were more than a little surprised that the final skin kept the bullet from going in there,” Lewis said. “It still ended up 2 inches into the torso, so it would not have saved your life. But without a doubt the most exciting part for us is the fact that they were able to recreate the skin on top of our fibers. It’s something we haven’t done. Nobody has worked in that area.”

Despite Essaidi’s dreams about bulletproof humans Lewis doesn’t see such a goal as a tremendous application at the moment. But being able to grow cells and use the material to replace large amounts of human skin could be significant for surgeons trying to cover large wounds, or treat people with severe burns, he noted. The material’s strength and elasticity would enable doctors to cover large areas without worrying about it ripping out – a big advantage over small skin grafts.

Because such a study needs FDA approval and also spider silk already has proven very compatible with the human body, the researchers are considering to do some animal testing within two years.

The next step is to generate more material to test what cells will grow on it – made easier with the “transgenic” silk worms and milk from goat spiders, said Lewis, who just started breeding for the next round of milking in January.


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