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Biomedical Optics & Medical Imaging

"Silk optics" a result of unlikely collaboration

Seed Magazine
20 September 2010

SPIE Member Fiorenzo Omenetto, a professor of biomedical engineering and physics at Tufts University, is part of a group that has merged optics expertise with an unlikely collaborator for scientific breakthroughs -- the silkworm.

Depending on how it is processed, silk can take on a variety of manifestations. It can be a fiber, a liquid, a sponge, or a gel; it can be poured into a mold and hardened as a solid plastic. In all these forms it is optically transparent. This is hard to tell from silk fabric, which has tightly-woven fibers that tend to scatter light, but silk itself is clear, as anyone who has ever walked through an unseen spider web can confirm.

A range of novel silk-based technologies is already changing healthcare. Silk tissue scaffolds engineered by the Tufts group several years ago were the first of these technologies to receive FDA approval, under the name SeriScaffolds by a spin-off company called Serica Technologies. Last year Serica was bought by Allergan, a large pharmaceutical manufacturer, and their products have now hit the market. The scaffolds are made of spongy silk that has the look and feel of human tissue.

Omenetto observed the hard, clear, pliant silk in the lab of colleague David Kaplan and was shocked. "It was very transparent, and looked nothing like the silk that I was used to seeing," he recalled. "At that moment I realized I could make optical devices out of it." He has since used silk to fabricate a multitude of devices and components, some with nano-scale structures imprinted on their surfaces, others embedded with electronics, some coated with metamaterials. Unlike similar devices made from glass or metal, the silk ones can be implanted in the body, allowing us, in Omenetto's words, "to interface the biotic and abiotic realms." With silk optics, a new field is being established: one in which optical detectors, monitors, biochemical sensors, and metamaterials can be implanted directly in the body, to send and receive information to the outside world.

Omenetto and Kaplan are frequent contributors to SPIE symposia.

Full story from Seed Magazine