Applying Shark Science to Human Health

July 28, 2017
Jennifer Barrett

Viewers of the Discovery Channel’s highly anticipated Shark Week may not know about the different role sharks play aside from teeth-thrashing and jaw-clamping they see on television.

Sharks may get a bad reputation, but that doesn’t stop viewers from tuning in every year for the Discovery Channel’s highly anticipated Shark Week.

But viewers may not know about the different role sharks play aside from teeth-thrashing and jaw-clamping 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

Sharks can heal quickly from wounds and also resist infections, making their genome interesting to researchers. 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

Researchers believe there are cancer-related immunity genes found in sharks that could bring us closer to finding new ways to combat cancer in humans. In one 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 this same micropattern to treat surfaces in a hospital setting contaminated with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus reduced transmission of bacteria by 97% compared to copper, a common antimicrobial surface.

4. Alzheimer's disease

Pharmaceutical company Lundbeck and biotech company Ossianix have been investigating whether shark antibodies may be able to fight Alzheimer’s and other diseases.4

Ossianix researchers are attempting 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.

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  • FDA approves Integra Omnigraft Dermal Regeneration Matrix to treat diabetic foot ulcers [news release]. FDA’s website. Accessed July 24, 2017.
  • 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
  • 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
  • Exciting breakthrough in antibody research [news release]. Lundbeck’s website. Accessed July 24, 2017.
  • World first trial of shark inspired drug [news release]. La trobe’s website. Accessed July 24, 2017.