5 Ways Sharks Can Advance Human Medicine

JULY 25, 2017
Jennifer Barrett, Assistant Editor
Sharks get a bad reputation, but that doesn’t stop viewers from tuning in every year for the Discovery Channel’s highly anticipated Shark Week. However, sharks can fulfill a different role aside from the teeth-thrashing, jaw-clamping one seen on television.

Researchers have been increasingly focused on applying shark science to human health in cutting edge research that may lead to several discoveries in medicine. Sink your teeth into these 5 ways that sharks could benefit humans, potentially leading to new drug developments.
  1. Wound Healing
Scientists know that sharks can heal quickly from wounds and resist infections. By sequencing the sharks’ genome, researchers are trying to understand which genes contribute to this quick-healing ability and translate this into the development of wound healing human medicine.

A graft device approved by the FDA, called Omnigraft Dermal Regeneration Matrix, for instance, uses a combination of silicone, cow collagen, and shark cartilage to treat life-threatening burns and diabetic foot ulcers.1
2.  Cancer

Increasing research on the cancer-related immunity genes found in sharks could bring us closer to finding new ways to combat cancer in humans. In one particular study, researchers found evidence that some shark immunity genes have undergone evolutionary changes that may be tied to these cancer-resistant abilities.2 Most notably, these genes also have counterparts in humans, where their overexpression is known to be associated with cancer.

The findings suggest that the proteins produced by these cancer-related genes have modified functions in sharks, such as the potential to protect them from cancer. However, research is continuing.  
  3.  Hospital Infections

To prevent hospital-acquired infections and minimize the need for antibiotics, a team of researchers studied the use of shark skin to reduce contaminated surfaces.3 Because of its roughness and certain properties, shark skin is able to deter organisms from attaching to the skin surface.

The team, from Sharklet Technologies, tested the strategy in a study that used a shark-inspired micropattern based on the microscopic surfaces seen on shark skin, making it difficult for bacterial attachment. Using the micropattern to treat surfaces in a hospital setting contaminated with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus reduced transmission by 97% compared to copper, a common antimicrobial surface.
4. Alzheimer's disease

Lundbeck and biotech company Ossianix have been investigating whether shark antibodies may provide a new way to fight Alzheimer’s and other diseases.4

Ossianix researchers are researching a way to attach therapeutic proteins to shark-derived antibodies, which could allow treatments to be transferred across the blood-brain barrier into the brain where they bind to a drug target. Lundbeck and Ossianix have successfully tested the technology in mice for both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Although research is still in its early stages, the findings could be potentially beneficial to patients with brain-based diseases.
     5. Fibrosis

Australian researchers have developed a drug that mimics part of a shark’s immune system to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).5 The drug, called AD-114, was inspired by an antibody found in shark blood, specifically in the Wobbegong shark. AD-114 was designated an orphan drug by the FDA and is expected to start human trials in 2018.

Other laboratory tests have indicated the drug’s potential to treat other forms of fibrosis, such as liver disease and age-related eyesight degeneration.

References
  1. FDA approves Integra Omnigraft Dermal Regeneration Matrix to treat diabetic foot ulcers [news release]. FDA’s website. https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm480564.htm. Accessed July 24, 2017.
  2. Marra NJ, Richards VP, Early A, et al. Comparative transcriptomics of elasmobranchs and teleosts highlight important processes in adaptive immunity and regional endothermy. BMC Genomics 2017; 18 (1). doi: 10.1186/s12864-016-3411-x
  3. Mann EE, Manna D, Mettetal MR, et al. Surface micropattern limits bacterial contamination. Antimicrobiral Resistance and Infection Control. 2014; 3:28. Doi: 10.1186/2047-2994-3-28
  4. Exciting breakthrough in antibody research [news release]. Lundbeck’s website. http://www.lundbeck.com/global/about-us/features/2017/exciting-breakthrough-in-antibody-research. Accessed July 24, 2017.
  5. World first trial of shark inspired drug [news release]. La trobe’s website. http://www.latrobe.edu.au/news/articles/2017/release/world-first-trial-of-shark-inspired-drug. Accessed July 24, 2017.
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