Spiders CAN be superheroes

2 minute read

Just a spoonful of web protein makes the medicine cure cancer.

It’s a fair assumption that spiders and cancer don’t make many people’s list of My Favourite Things, especially in the same sentence. 

But what if spiders could help treat cancer? 

From Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet comes a study involving the tumour suppressant p53 protein.

P53 is essential to stop cells dividing uncontrollably and forming cancers, so it’s an established cancer treatment target. But it’s only produced in small quantities, and is all drama – that is, it has an “intrinsically disordered N-terminal domain” – so the cell breaks it down rapidly. 

Spider silk, by contrast, is made of long chains of very stable proteins – with a “highly conserved N-terminal domain”, since you asked – and you can see where this is going. 

The Karolinska researchers took part of a synthetic spider silk protein and attached it to the relevant part of the p53 protein, then introduced it into cells. The cells proceeded to make much larger quantities of the modified p53 than they had of the original, and in a much more compactly folded state. 

In a nice weaving metaphor, the authors write in Structure: “The proposed mechanism would be analogous to the role of the spindle when spinning yarn, as winding of the disordered domains around the spider silk domain ‘spindle’ moves the nascent protein chain along during translation.”

Lead author Sir David Lane, who discovered the p53 protein in the 70s, said creating a more stable variant was a “promising approach to cancer therapy”. 

“We eventually hope to develop an mRNA-based cancer vaccine, but before we do so we need to know how the protein is handled in the cells and if large amounts of it can be toxic.”

Cancer vaccine, sure, that’s better than a poke in the eye, but obviously the best thing about this amazing science is how much closer it brings the prospect of a real-life Peter or Peta Parker. 

If you see something that tingles your spidey sense, spin a yarn to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au

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