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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science Note: Silk Saves Lives

Air Date: Week of
Soft to the touch, silk may also help preserve vaccines and drugs someday. (Fiorenzo Omenetto/Tufts University)

Silk isn’t just for high fashion. Scientists have discovered a way to safely send pharmaceutical drugs across the globe by dressing them in silk. Annie Sneed reports.


SNEED: Silk. It’s smooth, sleek, elegant. It makes expensive shirts and ties. And it can also save lives.

When pharmaceutical companies ship drugs around the globe, they have to refrigerate them, all the way from labs in Connecticut or New Jersey where they’re made, to remote villages in Madagascar or Zambia where they’re used. Refrigeration accounts for eighty percent of the cost of vaccines. But vaccines and antibiotics are often accidentally exposed to killer heat along the delivery route; as a result, nearly half of the world’s vaccines are lost every year.

But scientists at Tufts University recently discovered that silkworms create an alternative to refrigeration that’s more reliable. The silk they spin has many small water repellant pockets. These pockets trap vaccines and antibiotics like tiny pill bottles and hide them from the heat to keep the drugs biologically and chemically stable. Swathed in silk, drugs can withstand temperatures above one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit for months, possibly even years. Researchers also found a way to fashion a needle out of silk so that doctors can use the same silken device to both store and administer the drugs.

Silk may be a luxury when you wear it, but sending life-saving drugs around the world dressed in silk hardly seems extravagant. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Annie Sneed.



TuftsNow: New Silk Technology Preserves Heat-Sensitive Drugs for Months without Refrigeration.


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