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How sharks could hold the key to our immunity

How sharks may hold the key to our immunity: Researchers have solved the puzzle of why sharks’ immune systems are so effective at fighting off disease and it could lead to new drugs

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They have a terrifying reputation, but could sharks soon help save many more lives than the roughly ten lives they cost each year?

Over 400 million years of evolution, sharks’ immune systems have evolved into finely tuned defense mechanisms, far more accurate than humans, and capable of warding off nearly any dangerous virus or life-threatening tumor.

This is thought to be one of the main reasons why some species, such as the great white, can live up to 70 years. Sharks also have exceptional wound-healing properties, meaning injuries rarely result in death.

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

They have a terrifying reputation, but could sharks soon help save many more lives than the roughly ten lives they cost each year?

They have a terrifying reputation, but could sharks soon help save many more lives than the roughly ten lives they cost each year?

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

Separately, scientists have developed man-made antibodies, “monoclonal” antibodies, that are injected into the body to attack certain rogue cells, such as cancer cells.

Once they find their target, these synthetic antibodies switch on the immune system to attack the tumor cells (Herceptin, the 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, can usually bind only 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 fighting off the enemy.

In sharks, antibodies are less than a tenth the size of those in humans, allowing them to penetrate deeper into tiny cracks on the surface of bacteria or cancer cells — making them more likely to ‘stick’ and the immune system to attack the invader.

This is thought to be one of the main reasons why some species, such as the great white, can live up to 70 years.  Sharks also have exceptional wound healing properties, meaning injuries rarely result in death

This is thought to be one of the main reasons why some species, such as the great white, can live up to 70 years.  Sharks also have exceptional wound healing properties, meaning injuries rarely result in death

This is thought to be one of the main reasons why some species, such as the great white, can live up to 70 years. Sharks also have exceptional wound healing properties, meaning injuries rarely result in death

In addition, tests have shown that antibodies against sharks are very tough. Scientists claim to have boiled them and dipped them in caustic acid – but they survived.

‘Sharks are among the oldest living things on Earth, so scientists wanted to see if their disease-fighting toolbox was the same as humans’, said Dr Caroline Barelle, chief executive officer of Elasmogen Ltd, a University of Aberdeen spin-out company that is under development. synthetic versions of shark antibodies for human medicine.

“They quickly discovered that sharks had small and simple antibodies, with potentially huge advantages over large human antibodies that are very complex and can only bind to one target.”

Elasmogen tests synthetic shark antibodies against triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease. The idea is that man-made versions of small shark antibodies, injected into the bloodstream, have a better chance of binding to breast cancer cells by squeezing tiny holes on the surface and alerting the immune system.

The other option is to load the shark molecules with chemotherapy drugs that they can smuggle into cancer cells.

Trials of shark antibodies to treat cancer could take place in the next five to 10 years.

Another target is rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that can cause crippling pain. Lab tests suggest that man-made shark antibodies could carry medication that then lodges on a receptor on the surface of cells in the inflamed joints.

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