7 Living organisms that aid modern medicine in the weirdest ways
As the Discovery Channel famously put it, the world is just awesome.
We humans like to think of ourselves as the brainiest of the bunch but really, we are just insignificant walking, talking (albeit less hairy) apes and we’ve actually gained the vast majority of our knowledge from observing the weird and wonderful ways of Mother Nature.
Medicine is a continuously growing field with new discoveries occurring almost everyday. Normally, you wouldn’t think twice about these but have you ever stopped to consider just how many of our medical advancements have come straight from nature?
Whether it’s the depths of a jungle or the reefs of an ocean, the flora and fauna on our planet have generally been around a lot longer than us and as a result, they’ve come up with some ridiculously efficient methods of combating whatever poses a threat to their survival.
More often than not, we humans experience some of these same threats but pale in comparison when it comes to overcoming them.
It makes a lot of sense then, to put more time and effort into the study of nature and what it can offer. An alternative to morphine made by venomous snails? Multipurpose sunscreen secreted from sweaty hippo glands? The possibilities truly are endless, so here are just 7 incredible living things that have either already benefited medicine, or are about to do so in unbelievable ways.
1) Giant Yellow Israeli Scorpion
Let’s get this ball rolling with Scorpions. Ugly, venomous and not exactly a favourite for most people. They don’t really have much going for them, but you might like them a little more once you know what cancer busting potential their venom has to offer.
Any surgery is an impressive feat, but tumour removal operations are on a whole other level of trickiness. Precision is obviously paramount when cancer cells are involved, as if any are missed or left behind chances are the tumour will grow back. Brains are particularly fiddly and any wrong move can lead to damage of the surrounding grey-matter and a very unsatisfied patient.
Surgeons currently carry out this risky business using changes in blood supply, colour and texture to differentiate cancerous cells from healthy ones and while this works sufficiently enough, there will always be room for improvement.
Enter Chlorotoxin (Cy5.5), a chemical found in the venom of the Giant Yellow Israeli Scorpion (also known as the Death Stalker, coincidence?) which attaches itself to cancer cells within minutes of being introduced into the body. In the wild, proteins in the scorpion’s venom attach to the nerve cells of their victims enabling them to paralyse their prey. In medicine, it appears certain cancer cells have a similar receptor which attracts this same protein; binding Cy5.5 to cancer cells and leaving healthy human ones alone.
And there’s more. When joined to a fluorescent marker, Cy5.5 will emit light in the Infra-red spectrum thereby illuminating whole tumours and even small clusters containing as little as a few hundred cells. This magical paint appears to be at least 500 times more sensitive to the presence of cancer cells than an MRI scan and can last in the body for up to 2 weeks, a huge improvement on some current contrast agents which only last a few minutes.
When tested on mice, researchers discovered the chemical could light up brain tumours as small as 1mm in diameter and even show cancerous cells travelling through the lymphatic system.
It may still be a while before doctors can use this tumour detection process though, as research is still being undertaken to discover a suitable dye that will be approved by the FDA.
But there’s still more. T-601, the synthetic version of the chemical found in the scorpion’s sting could help surgeons fight tumours as well as detect them.
Remember, the scorpion has been around a heck of a lot longer than us and as a result, its venom has been primed by evolution to work as efficiently as possible. By breaking through the membrane that separates the brain from the bloodstream, scorpions are able to swiftly disable their prey. T-601 mimics this (with tumours replacing cockroaches) and is one of the few chemicals that can break through our blood-brain barrier unobstructed.
In 2006, Dr. Adam Mamelak took advantage of the venom’s properties and combined T-601 with radioactive iodine to deliver little packages of doom straight to the brain tumour’s (Gilomas) door step. It is hoped that patients can undergo this process after receiving brain surgery to ensure any remaining cancer cells are completely destroyed.
Gilomas are deadly and patients receiving such an unfortunate diagnosis are not offered much hope at present. However, results from testing T-601 in a small number of human trails have shown promise and patients have generally significantly lengthened their survival rates.
So you see, scorpions aren’t so bad. Just try and forget the original purpose of their venom was to completely paralyze you whilst delivering insanely excruciating pain and you’re good to go!
2) Hippo sweat
What on earth could science have possibly learnt from these angry water-dwelling brutes you might ask? Well, rather a lot actually. See, it may not be too long before you’re sat on the beach on a baking hot day, soaking up the rays and smearing their sweat all over your body. That’s right, hippo B.O – skin care and the sweet stench of eau de hippopotamus (it sells itself).
But seriously, once the guys in the lab find a way to mimic the properties of this magical sweat, we’re going to have a lot to thank them for.
Scientists first started paying more attention to hippos when they noticed they appeared to be sweating blood. Upon closer inspection (and you thought your job was bad) they realised the animals were not bleeding or even sweating for that matter, they were in fact secreting a thick red substance from special glands under the skin. Tasty.
This red gooey stuff understandably called for further investigation and so a research team in Japan (Ed: where else?!) stepped up and found some pretty crazy results. They discovered the secretion was made up of two compounds which they rather imaginatively named Hipposudoric and Norhipposudoric acid. Take these compounds, mix them with some sticky hippo mucus and you’ve got a substance made up of tiny structures which absorb light by breaking up its individual molecules.
Not only is this mixture able to scatter visible light rays over the hippo’s body, it can block ultra-violet rays too; which explains why hippos aren’t walking round resembling giant ill-tempered tomatoes. What’s more, you can spend an entire day frolicking in a muddy pond and this stuff still won’t wear off – brilliant.
But this sticky perspiration still has more to offer. See, Hippos may look cute but they are mean. Mean, angry, surprisingly speedy and armed with 50 centimetre long canines (this sweat research is starting to seem more impressive isn’t it?). Males often settle arguments with a good old fashioned brawl and with teeth so ridiculously big, the animals are able to deliver some impressive cuts and scrapes.
Open wounds don’t normally do so well when submerged in what is basically a pool of poo all day, so how do hippos remain infection free? Well turns out Hipposudoric acid also acts as a super powered antibiotic and actually completely inhibits the growth of bacteria as well as fending off insects.
So hippo sweat – a triple threat! Sun block, antiseptic and insect repellent. While it is still unknown whether any of these impressive properties can be efficiently mimicked for use on human skin, the possibilities are there and well, let’s just say we wish the best of luck to whoever lands that marketing campaign.
3) Spider goats
The properties of spider silk are nothing new to scientists, but the possibilities of actually being able to put the characteristics of that silk to use are now becoming more realistic than ever before.
And no, this doesn’t mean we’re all going to be swinging from the buildings like Spiderman in a few years (not yet anyway), but ‘bio-silk’, as it’s known in the industry, can offer a lot more to modern man.
From bullet proof vests to artificial ligaments, the possible products are numerous; but up until now, researchers haven’t been able to gather the stuff in large enough quantities to carry out the required research. The problem? Spiders are cannibalistic by nature and so they don’t exactly thrive well together in a farming situation. The solution? Spider goats!
No, I’m not talking about some 8 legged goat-spider mutation that clings from giant webs on the ceiling and eats your clothes, I’m talking about transgenetic goats – obviously!
Molecular biologists at the University of Wyoming have found a way to connect the spider silk gene responsible for making silk protein to the part of a goat’s DNA that controls which tissue will produce the protein (a mammary gland in this case). This cell is then combined with an egg which will hopefully develop into a female goat that possesses the special gene enabling her to produce the silk protein when she starts to lactate.
In other words, female goats are making silk in their milk.
Although only a certain percentage of the embryos will develop into goats that possess the gene, the animals that do test positive will produce the protein every time they lactate, enabling silk proteins to be gathered in much higher quantities than ever before.
This is great news for researchers as the super strength of spider silk has already proven to be stronger than Kevlar (the current fibre used in bullet proof vests), and such strength combined with super elasticity could aid numerous technological advancements.
In terms of medical uses, spider silk is already showing promise as it can be inserted into the body without producing inflammation or rejection. Taking this into consideration, this super silk could be used for eye sutures, jaw repair, artificial ligaments and tendons where the silk could help support nerve, cell and bone growth.
If goats can do it, why not plants? Researchers hope to be able to repeat the same process in the future with alfalfa plants as these have a high protein content and are widely distributed, therefore enabling vast quantities of silk to be mass produced. But somehow spider alfalfa just doesn’t sound quite as cool…
4) Horse shoe crabs
Keeping on the subject of arachnids, the horse shoe crab may resemble a rather bizarre crustacean but they are actually more closely related to spiders and scorpions. Either way, they’ve remained unchanged for more than 200 million years with the first ever horse shoe crab fossil dating back to roughly 450 million years ago.
Scientists clocked the fact that these weird looking things hadn’t altered anything about their make up and yet have consistently thrived despite what nature (and mankind) has thrown at them so, naturally they figured they deserved a closer look.
If you’ve been around for millions of years and always lived in a giant cess pool (the ocean) you’ve probably been exposed to a crazy amount of microbes and gotten pretty darn good at fighting them off. This is most definitely the case with the horse shoe crab and it’s in the crab’s curious blue blood where their secrets to survival lie.
Blue due to the high levels of copper, horseshoe crab blood contains a protein called Limulus Amebocyte Lysate or LAL. This protein reacts to numerous micro-organisms and when harmful to the crab, the blood will coagulate and bind to intruder organisms, effectively disabling them and allowing the crab to live another day.
This simple process of the crab’s immune system first interested scientists over 30 years ago, but it is still continuing to benefit medicine every day. In fact, if you have ever had a vaccine, antibiotic or an implanted medical device (those of you with pacemakers) then you have a horseshoe crab to thank.
LAL is now used worldwide as a standard screening test for bacterial contamination. Screening involves exposing a small amount of the sample under question to the crab blood, if endotoxins (toxic substances released by E. coli and other dangerous bacteria that can severely endanger the human immune system) are present, the blood will clot and the whole sample will be rejected. Crabs are easy to collect, their blood is easy to harvest and the whole testing process only takes up to one hour. Horseshoe crabs have therefore revolutionised the biomedical industry and every drug and surgical implant must now be tested using this method.
Crabs are supposedly only bled once and then released back into the wild so let’s just hope that we don’t drive these incredibly useful critters down to dangerous levels for our own purposes (because we’ve never done that before). At a selling rate of 15,000 USD for a pint of this blue juice though, why not set up your own horseshoe crab farm today!
5) Caribbean Sea Sponge
The National Cancer Institute now estimates that 65 percent of all cancer drugs come from natural products and those found beneath the waves appear to be offering particularly unique solutions to some of mans biggest problems and are currently taking medicine to new levels.
You might think sponges are probably the least exciting organisms on this list. They stay rooted to the same spot all their lives and don’t look like they have anything particularly interesting to offer other than brightening up the sea floor. But of course, you’d be completely wrong.
Sea sponges in particular seem to be making quite the impression on medicine and medical science. Researchers have discovered sponges contain complex chemical compounds which they employ as antibiotics to fight off harmful bacteria.
One species of Caribbean Sea sponge uses its own antibiotic to strip bacteria of their protective bio-film making it easier for the sponge to kill them. This is all the more useful to us when you consider an estimated 65-80% of all bacterial infections we humans encounter also use bio-films to protect themselves.
More than 800 of these spongy compounds have been discovered so far and a large number have shown promise in the prevention and fighting of cancer and even the HIV virus.
Discodermolide, an anti-cancer agent harvested from deep sea sponges has already progressed to the human clinical trials stage and if successful, it will be a powerful growth inhibitor of tumours and help prevent further abnormal cell division.
Also containing elements of deep sea sponge, Azidothymidine was the first antiretroviral medicine ever approved for the treating of HIV/AIDS, and is still widely used today especially in the successful prevention of disease transmission between mother and child.
From luekemia treatments to combating herpes, sponges are continuously impacting medicine in a positive way and as there is still so much to learn, it would appear we have only just started to scratch this vast spongy surface.
6) Cone Snail
While we’re on the subject of marine life, let’s move on to cone snails. Beautifully decorated and slow moving they may be, but lethal harpoon-shooting menaces?
Apparently, cone snails have been the cause of at least 30 human deaths (not that impressive a number sure, but you’d still be pretty peeved if you died from something as lame as a snail sting).
Since snails pretty much have the worst design for hunting prey, cone snails have evolved to shoot out tiny little harpoons loaded with venom which paralyze (and sometimes kill) their prey. Not so useless now eh?
Biochemist Baldomero Olivera was the first to point out that people who had been stung by these snails felt no pain and so set out to discover if smaller doses of the venom could actually have positive effects.
He went on to learn that the molecules the snails make to produce their venom were very small and simple and therefore easy to reproduce to create a synthetic version of the venom.
Eventually a drug compound mimicking the pain blocking properties of the venom was produced and named Prialt. Research has proven the drug to be 1000 times more powerful than morphine with the added benefits of not offering the addictive and tolerance-building side effects that accompany traditional opiates. So you won’t have as fun a time at the hospital, but you’ll walk away not wanting another hit – can’t be a bad thing! As a result, the FDA has now officially approved Prialt and you can add the cone snail to your thank-you card list.
7) Gila Monster
Run away! It’s a Gila monster! Or don’t.
Although it’s one of the few lizard species on earth that produces venom, the Gila monster has caused no human deaths and is really just a colourful lizard with a pretty painful bite.
Pronounced HEE-la, the lizard lives exclusively in the Southwest United states and parts of northern Mexico and spends 95% of its life underground. As a result of their lifestyle, Gila monsters have come up with some ingenious adaptations with one in particular impacting medicine in a massive way.
During winter, Gila monsters save energy by shutting down all their active tissues and glands, this in itself is pretty common in the animal kingdom but it’s how the lizard stimulates its body back to life that first interested scientists.
Gila monsters don’t eat often but when they do, they gorge themselves and therefore need the hormones in their venom to moderate their glucose levels and stimulate a steady production of insulin to aid digestion.
Back in 1992, endocrinologist ( Ed: a person who studies hormones, to us) Dr. John Eng named a compound of this hormone Exendin-4 b and likened it to the hormone produced in our own digestive tracts responsible for increasing insulin levels when blood sugar is high. However, unlike the human hormone, Exendin-4 could remain effective in the body for a lot longer and therefore had incredible potential to benefit people suffering from Type 2 diabetes.
After 10 years of research and development, a synthetic protein derived from the lizards venom (Byetta) was approved by the FDA and is now effective in not only assisting those with type 2 diabetes maintain healthy glucose levels but also enabling patients to lose weight by slowing down the emptying of the stomach and decreasing appetite levels.
As a result, Byetta has brought relief to 17 million sufferers of type 2 diabetes in the US alone and what’s more, further research of Exendin-4 is now showing exciting potential for advancements in memory disorder treatments such as ADHD and Alzheimers. Not bad for a scaly dribbling reptile!
As a species, we have often looked towards a higher power to try and find all the answers. Well, it would seem all the information we really need is right under our noses and we just need to know whereabouts to look to make the best use of it.
Evolution has spent a very long time creating some ingenious solutions to some of life’s greatest problems and it hopefully won’t be long until we unlock even more of nature’s hidden treasures.