Sharks Save Lives—Sharks and Medicine

stroke patient, tumor with blood vessels, pills

stroke patient, tumor with blood vessels, pills

Sharks are the focus of a wide range of medical research and a source of biomaterials used in several surgeries and pharmaceutical drugs. For example, the irregular, shifting structure of sharkskin that deters plant spores from latching onto and growing on sharks is being studied for possible medical applications. A sharkskin-like surface would prevent detrimental tissue growth on biomedical implants like catheters and heart valves. Scientists are also studying how Epaulette sharks can survive being stranded on shore for a few hours at low tide without being able to breathe. Since the epaulettes cope with oxygen deprivation at temperatures close to the human body temperature, there is hope that what they learn could be applied to stroke and heart attack patients.

Extract from shark cartilage is used in the creation of skin grafts for burn victims and shark corneas are used in corneal transplants. Squalamine, a substance derived from the stomach lining of several sharks, is effective as an antibiotic against a group of bacterial, protozoan and fungal pathogens that are resistant to all other available antibiotics. Squalamine also has anti-angiogenesis properties, meaning it stops tumors from forming blood vessels, which starves them of nourishment. Researchers think it has potential as an anti-tumor drug.

Sharks even have an extra, unique type of antibody that is much more effective than human antibodies at fighting infectious diseases. Their antibodies are also more chemically robust and biologically stable than human antibodies, which make them ideal for oral medications, as they would survive the acidic conditions of the human digestive system, or for storing and using in harsh environments, like the sweltering battlefields of Iraq. Once the genetic sequence of specific shark antibodies are mapped out, they could be mass-produced and used for diagnosing and treating infectious diseases in humans. A few scientists are genetically modifying shark antibodies to make new antibodies geared toward other conditions too. Antibodies that inhibit growth in, and curtail the spread of, cancer cells have already been generated. So have antibodies that kill malaria parasites.

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