Humans are not infallible.  We get sick, we get injured.  Humans are a clever bunch though, and since prehistoric times we have used medicine to try and heal our ailments.  Medical science has made huge leaps and bounds, providing treatments and vaccinations, surgical procedures, and physical and psychological therapies that have allowed people to survive – and thrive – injuries and illnesses which would have once been fatal.  Medical science never stops evolving, learning and searching for more ways to keep us in tip-top condition.  That search includes delving beneath the ocean waves.  Here’s just a couple of examples of how medical science has been furthered by studying ocean creatures:

Taking away the pain with… venom?!
The humble snail.  Not the most exciting of creatures you would think.  Cone snails (Conus) are a genus of marine snails…marine snails that hunt.  Predating on worms, small fish and molluscs these slow-moving hunters are equipped with a toxic harpoon.  One speared, their prey is paralyzed and slowly but surely the cone snail can make its way over and feast.  It’s not all pain though, as a paper by Dr Fedosoc from the Russian Academy of Sciences and colleagues points out.  It seems that the toxins have another use too – the development of pain killers.

A short film from National Geographic showing cone snails capturing prey

Just a word of warning if you do come across a cone snail.  They will have a go at humans too.  Most species will just sting you badly, but some can kill!

A bony issue
Breaking bones is never fun, especially when the break is very complex.  Sometimes the breaks are so complex they simply cannot repair by themselves, so surgery is needed.  Bone grafting has been used for a number of years to help the healing process.  Essentially grafts act as scaffolds onto which bone can grow.  It seems that fully converting the calcium carbonate that corals use to create their exoskeleton into coralline hydroxyapatite is pretty decent grafting material, if a little fragile.  But there is a problem – the grafts don’t fully biodegrade.  Ideally we don’t want to leave grafts in the body if we can help it.  Doing so introduces the risk of infection, and even a risk of re-fracture.  All is not lost though.  Kun Fu from Hainan Medical College, China and colleagues from the UK have managed to make some improvements.  By partially converting the calcium carbonate into coralline hydroxyapatite, they were able to retain some of the natural biodegradability of calcium carbonate in the graft material.  Good stuff!  Of course, we can’t keep harvesting corals for grafts but it opens up the possibility to explore the role of calcium carbonate further.

Researching cancer treatment with sponges
Marine sponges are sort of like a living pharmacy.  The more we study them the more we find “pharmacologically-active chemicals” which we could use to help further medical science.  Researchers like Sabine Ottinger from the University of Heidelberg and German Cancer Research Centre and colleagues are exploring novel ways tackling some cancers.   Focusing their efforts the extraction of anticancer and cytotoxic (toxic to cells) compounds found within sponges, the team note that some of these compounds – in particular those found in one species Crambe crambe – may be useful for tacking cancer stem cells.  This is all very much research in development – no treatment has been found, but it seems that the sponges have given us another area that is very much worth exploring.

If you want to learn more about cancer and potential treatments, head on over to Buddhini Samarasinghe G+ page or her website where you can easily read her excellent “The Hallmarks of Cancer” series.

Photo: Tim Nicholson


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