Science

How Sharks May Hold the Key to Our Immune System

They have a fearsome reputation, but could sharks soon help save the lives of ten or more people each year?
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How sharks may hold the key to our immunity: Researchers solve the puzzle of why sharks’ immune systems are so effective at fighting disease and it could lead to new drugs

They have a fearsome reputation, but could sharks soon help save the lives of ten or more people each year?

Over 400 million years of evolution, the shark’s immune system has evolved into a finely tuned defense system, far more specific than humans and capable of detecting almost any dangerous virus or life-threatening tumor.

This is believed to be a major reason why some species, such as the great white, can live up to 70 years. Sharks also have exceptional wound healing abilities, meaning injuries rarely result in death.

Now researchers have solved the mystery of why sharks’ immune systems are so effective at warding off disease. And the findings could lead to new drugs to fight illnesses like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.

They have a fearsome reputation, but could sharks soon help save the lives of ten or more people each year?

They have a fearsome reputation, but could sharks soon help save the lives of ten or more people each year?

In humans, when the immune system senses the presence of a foreign cell (such as a virus or bacteria) it releases a protein called an antibody. It attaches to a specific molecule on the surface of the virus or bacteria and calls in support from more powerful immune system cells called T-cells to kill the invader.

Separately, scientists have developed man-made antibodies, ‘monoclonal’ antibodies, which are injected into the body against certain rogue cells, such as cancer.

Once they dock with their target, these synthetic antibodies trigger the immune system to attack tumor cells (Herceptin, a drug used to treat some forms of breast and stomach cancer, is a monoclonal antibody).

But human and man-made antibodies tend to be bulky, Y-shaped molecules that, because of their size, are usually able to bind to a small number of targets on invading cells. This helps explain why the human immune system and antibody-based drugs are not always 100 percent effective at seeing the enemy.

In sharks, the antibodies are less than one-tenth the size of those found in humans, allowing them to penetrate deep into tiny cracks found on the surface of bacteria or cancer cells – improving their chances of ‘sticking’ and destroying the immune system. to attack

This is believed to be a major reason why some species, such as the great white, can live up to 70 years.  Sharks also have exceptional wound healing abilities, meaning injuries rarely result in death

This is believed to be a major reason why some species, such as the great white, can live up to 70 years. Sharks also have exceptional wound healing abilities, meaning injuries rarely result in death

What’s more, tests have shown that shark antibodies are very strong. Scientists claim they were boiled and dipped in corrosive acid — yet they survived.

‘Sharks are one of the oldest living creatures on the planet so scientists wanted to see if their disease-fighting toolbox was similar to that of humans,’ said Dr Caroline Burrell, chief executive of Elasmogen Ltd, a spin-out company from the University of Aberdeen that produces synthetic versions of shark antibodies for human medicine. .

‘They soon saw that shark antibodies, which were small and simple, had many potential advantages over larger human antibodies, which were very complex and could only bind to one target.’

Elasmogen is testing synthetic shark antibodies against triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease. The idea is that human-made versions of tiny shark antibodies, which are injected into the bloodstream, will have a better chance of binding to breast cancer cells by squeezing into tiny gaps in the surface and alerting the immune system.

Another option is to load shark molecules with chemo-therapy drugs that they can traffic inside cancer cells.

Trials using shark antibodies to treat cancer could take place within the next five to ten years.

Another target is rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that can cause crippling pain. Laboratory tests indicate that man-made shark antibodies can carry drugs that then latch onto a receptor on the surface of cells in inflamed joints.

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