Trojan Horses and Chemical Velcro: How WWU's Amanda Murphy is Researching Silk's Use in the Fight Against Cancer

The human body has a complex system of defenses designed to find, attack and destroy any foreign body that makes its way inside; sometimes that attack can take the form of physically destroying the intruder, or the body can simply encase the object in proteins, in effect wrapping it up and isolating it.

But as advances in medical science push boundaries into new and exciting territories, finding ways to fool our body’s defenses – because something being introduced into the body is actually helpful, not harmful – is becoming more important.

Western Washington University Associate Professor of Chemistry Amanda Murphy has received a new three-year, $388,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue her research into how silk can be used as biomaterial that will not be attacked or rejected by the body.

For example, Murphy is researching how silk can be used as delivery systems for medication such as chemotherapy that would take the medication precisely to the target area and not have it be circulated throughout the entire body, where its toxicity can hurt patients as much as help them. Here, the silk is used as a sort of biomedical Trojan Horse – while it is fooling the body into thinking it is part of its system, it is delivering medicine in a focused, pinpoint way what that could greatly accelerate regeneration and healing.

Investigating how silk can be used as a search and diagnostic tool holds immense promise, and could potentially allow us to find cancers much earlier.

“We have known for years that silk is a material that the body tolerates more than other materials; it has been used as sutures for centuries,” she said. “We are working to create ‘designer’ silks that can be used inside the body, both as implants and as delivery tools.”

To achieve this, Murphy’s group is working to load an appropriate medicine into tiny silk particles, then coat the surface with a chemical compound that can recognize a particular tissue type, for example, a tumor. When detected, the silk particle would automatically attach itself using a form of “chemical Velcro” and release its payload of medicine. Murphy is also developing methods to coat these silk hunter/killers with bioluminescent enzymes – similar to those found in fireflies – so when enough of them find and attach themselves to a tumor, they would give off visible light that can be detected outside the body.

“Investigating how silk can be used as a search and diagnostic tool holds immense promise, and could potentially allow us to find cancers much earlier,” she said.

The grant will be used to pay for materials, equipment, and research stipends for four undergraduates and one master’s student in her lab for the next three summers. The grant also gives an opportunity for one community college student per summer to participate in the project.

Murphy is originally from Lacey and attended WWU as an undergraduate; she came back to teach at her alma mater in 2010 after getting a doctorate in Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley and completing postdoctoral work at Tufts University in Boston.

For more information on the grant or her research into silk biomaterials, contact Amanda Murphy at

The Murphy research group poses for a photo