by: Arlene Weintraub
“Shark Week,” the insanely popular week-long festival of flesh-ripping, terror-inducing finned creatures, is in full-swing on the Discovery Channel and no doubt will be just as popular as ever in its 28th year. With shows bearing titles like “Return of the Great White Serial Killer” and “Super Predator” this season promises to scare millions of viewers off the beach. Add to that the coincidental rash of real-life shark attacks in North Carolina and it’s fair to say the world’s most fearsome fish is not getting a lot of good PR these days.
Discovery Channel’s executives have promised to make “Shark Week” programming more science-based—a vow that emerged after the network was widely panned for airing the fake documentary “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” two years ago. That change will be welcome by academics like Jessica Gall Myrick, an assistant professor at Indiana University who studies the impact of the media on emotions and recently published a paper on how violence during “Shark Week” influences people’s fear of the creatures. (More on that later.)
“It’s tricky to communicate science, with its cold hard facts, especially because humans are so attracted to emotional appeals,” Myrick says. “I hope the content lives up to the promise. Maybe people won’t be rushing out to the beach, but I hope they learn more about the importance of supporting shark conservation.”
Fact is, plenty of scientists will tell you there’s a lot to love about sharks that you’re unlikely to learn about from the Discovery Channel’s programs this week. For one, sharks have remarkable immune systems, and many researchers have made headway in the ongoing effort to translate that immunity into new drugs for treating people. Here are some of the ways sharks are contributing to medical research:
Sharks are inspiring new cancer treatments, and no, it’s not from their cartilage.
Shark cartilage dietary supplements were all the rage in the early ‘90s, following the release of studies claiming they could effectively treat cancer. Those studies were later discredited (as noted recently on the Discovery Channel’s shark blog), but more serious efforts to understand how certain sharks fight off cancer are underway.
For example, scientist Carl Luer at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, FL, is working with scientists at the University of Central Florida and Sun BioPharma to isolate substances found in the immune system of the bonnethead shark, which is naturally resistant to cancer. Luer has made several compounds inspired by the shark’s immune system and is now testing them in 15 different human tumor types.
And an Irish company called Almac Discovery is teaming up with the University of Aberdeen to develop a new technology called soloMERs—human versions of proteins found in sharks that seem to have an innate ability to bind to cancerous tissue. The shark proteins are called single variable new antigen receptor domain antibody fragments (a mouthful that scientists call VNARs for short). Almac said recently that it is developing the technology as a drug-delivery vehicle that will carry anti-tumor “warheads” directly to tumors, while leaving healthy tissues alone……..
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Source: Forbes