Nature: Our Best Medicine

As news of cancer vaccines reaches the press, a future without diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or any of the other terrifying diseases we face seems a little bit closer. But as researchers work to ensure the healthiness of the human race, it is easy to forget that nature has already spent 3.8 billion years working to ensure the survival of the world and has already found the solutions to so many of our problems.

Monkey Business

Chimpanzee, Willem Van der Kerkhof/Flickr Creative Commons

25% of modern day drugs are derived from plants and researchers are always looking for a way to sort through the thousands of plant species looking for the ones that could help modern day medicine. Fortunately we are not the only ones who look to plants for medicinal help—we have some help from chimpanzees. When sick, chimpanzees go to various plants effectively self-medicating themselves. As researchers study chimpanzees they hope to find more plants that can be used to treat diseases in humans.

Sharks: The Next Line of Defense

Although treatment of disease is important, so is prevention. Sharklet Technologies have discovered a fascinating property of shark skins. Shark skin has already lead to the development of cars that are more aerodynamic and better swimsuits, but its newest contribution is to medicine.

Aliwal Shoal Tiger Shark 33, FLeander/Flickr

The surface of shark skin is made up of microscopic diamonds that has been found to prevent bacteria colonies from forming. As the chairman of the board of directors of Sharklet, Joe Bagan says, "We think they come across this surface and make an energy-based decision that this is not the right place to form a colony." In other words, the microscopic pattern on shark skin stops germs from sticking and spreading.

As it is that time of year to get flu shots, the spread of germs is on everyone’s mind. Tactivex has taken the Sharklet pattern and applied it to a film that can be put on basically anywhere. When put on a doorknob, for example, this means that the germs on every person’s hand that touches that doorknob can no longer aggregate—effectively stopping the spread of germs through touch transference.

The spread of germs is particularly scary in hospitals where infections can be deadly. As the Sharklet Technology website reports, every year millions of patients obtain urinary catheters and after a week 1 in 4 of those patients will get an infection associated with their catheter.

Staphylococcus aureau, Microbe World/Flickr Creative Commons

Sharklet technology is now currently working on developing a urinary catheter that utilizes the shark skin pattern which can hopefully dramatically reduce the number of catheter-associated infections.

The fact that Sharklet technology naturally inhibits bacteria’s survival and prevents its transfer is particularly useful as we are encountering more and more drug-resistant bacteria. Chemical drugs kill the weakest bacteria, allowing the strongest to survive, resulting in drug-resistance. Sharklet’s natural approach can prevent the emergence of strains of bacteria that we cannot treat while still preventing the spread of germs.

Protecting our Inspiration

This is merely one of many examples of how nature has helped the medicinal world. Just by looking at nature science has found a superglue for bones derived from worms, scotch tape from bugs that could help surgeons everywhere, and much more. It is important to remember that as ecosystems are destroyed and animals and plants become extinct it is not just sad for that species, it hurts us. The world around us can hold the secrets to new technologies and medicine that it spent billions of years developing. As we disregard our environment, we ignore and destroy the inspiration that can save us from one of our greatest threats: disease. Protecting the environment ultimately protects us.

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7 Responses to Nature: Our Best Medicine

  1. Jenn says:

    ... This is my favorite post so far.
    I'm super psyched about the idea of scientists metaphorically picking the brains of animals! (Instead of literally picking them.)

    In my microbiology class last semester, we learned that drug-resistant bacteria pose a huge threat to medicine and how we treat it. Pop;e thought that penicillin was the "silver bullet" of medicine when it was discovered in 1929. It's availability during WWII was credited with saving thousands of lives in the field.
    Unfortunately, we tend to overuse and abuse antibiotics. (Did you know that in the US, 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, while 17.8 million pounds (some estimate as much as 24.6 million pounds) of antibiotics are fed to livestock each year for non-therapeutic uses? (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/08/us/scientists-see-higher-use-of-antibiotics-on-farms.html?src=pm)) Already the antibiotics we do have are less effective, and people infected with antimicrobial-resistant organisms are more likely to have longer, more expensive hospital stays, and may be more likely to die as a result of the infection (CDC).
    Scientists are under huge pressure to find new and stronger antibiotics, but will likely be unable to keep up with the evolution of these bacteria (how many bacterial generations to a patent process?).
    My point was, to me, pumping out new drugs feels like a losing battle (especially if we don't also address and stress that we need to change the way we use antibiotics). So it's super exciting that the Sharklet folks are thinking outside the box!

  2. Hannah says:

    Your posts continue to amaze me Aliza! Who knew we could learn so much from the nature around us?

  3. Linda Loewenstein says:

    Fascinating, Aliza. Thanks for sending this out. Looks like Tactivex is another Western connection (Oregon)!

  4. Julia says:

    This is completely true - we need to be careful of our environment, or else we may end up harming ourselves! Trusting nature to find cures itself is similar to the situation we are facing with monocropping - by growing only one strain of a cash crop, we are not allowing other strains, which may prove to be resistant to some disease, to develop. Another great post!

  5. Maya says:

    Wow! Chimpanzees, it seems, would make great doctors. And how could you resist that face? Thanks so much for sharing, Aliza!

  6. felice says:

    wow-- i am passing this one on to my daughter who wants to be a vet!

  7. Dana says:

    This article was fascinating! I had no idea that we could learn so much from plants and animals; it is so important to get this information out there so everyone understand the importance of keeping our environment safe!