When you think of advances in healthcare, you probably think of research labs developing synthetic prescription drugs or the latest and greatest medical technology.
But what if everything we needed to improve human health was already out there in non-human animals, waiting to be discovered?
There’s a lot we can learn about ourselves – and improve upon – in the animal kingdom. The challenge is actually finding what works (and then harvesting it responsibly) but the reward can be staving off any number of ailments.
Horseshoe crabs, frogs, naked mole rats, and dogs are just some of the animals that researchers are hoping can make a healthier future for humans.
Preventing infections with horseshoe crab blood
Asked to imagine a lab with a bunch of test subjects hooked up to tubes that were pumping blood into bottles to be used in experiments, you’d probably picture some Soylent Green-style dystopian sci-fi movie.
Or, you might be thinking of a research center with horseshoe crabs.
Horseshoe crabs’ blue blood – specifically the clotting agent Limulus Amoebocyte Lysate (LAL) – can help detect bacteria like E. coli. That’s helpful in preventing infections in "injectable drugs such as insulin, implantable medical devices such as knee replacements, and hospital instruments such as scalpels and IVs."
LAL is such a valuable resource, and currently only available at scale by draining a half a million crabs each year, that some sources price it as high as $14,000 a quart. As one conservationist put it in an interview with Popular Mechanics, "Every man, woman, and child and domestic animal on this planet that uses medical services is connected to the horseshoe crab."
Unfortunately, that’s not a great thing. Horseshoe crabs are bled and then released back into the wild, but no one really knows how the capture, transportation, bleeding, and release really affects them. And while fishermen have capture quotas, there’s no limit to the number of crabs that can be caught by biomedical labs for research; with the pharmaceutical industry set to grow by 8% this year, conservationists are hoping to put some guidelines in place so we can continue using horseshoe crab blood without causing the extinction of the species.
Fighting the flu with frog slime
We all know that frogs are good for causing warts and creating and witches’ potions, but turns out they might have other, more medicinal purposes, too.
A recently discovered species South Indian frog, Hydrophylax bahuvistara, has a chemical, urumin, in its skin slime that can kill the H1 variety of the influenza virus. Urumin, an immune system molecule called a peptide, fights off infections and diseases that are similar to the flu (which frogs can’t catch). It has the unique property of attacking the flu virus without damaging healthy cells, and can also fight off staph infections and salmonella.
Urumin hasn’t been used on human test subjects yet, but scientists have had success in killing the flu virus in mice, and are looking to test it on ferrets next. It doesn’t last long in the body, so one of the issues that needs to be ironed out is how to stabilize the molecule. Eventually, researchers hope that urumin or a similar molecule can be adapted to fight other viruses, like Zika.
Surprised that frogs can help fight disease? You shouldn’t be. It’s been (unscientifically) known for a while; Russians used to put frogs in their milk to keep it from spoiling.
Urumin can be created in labs, so there’s no need to harvest frogs like we do horseshoe crabs. But the discovery of the peptides in Hydrophylax bahuvistara’s mucus highlights a different problem. The frog was only discovered in 2015, and there’s already promising medicinal use. What animals are we putting in danger due to industry and climate change that might be useful to us in the future? What if we kill the next Hydrophylax bahuvistara, and a cure for, say, cancer along with it?
The progress in medicine are tackling some pretty big-picture problems, but at the same time they’re helping to shed a light on other big-picture problems.
Helping heart attack victims with the naked mole rat
Naked mole rats are simultaneously adorable and ugly.
They’re also, essentially, miracles: besides living up to ten times longer than other rodents and being immune to cancer, they can also survive up to 18 minutes without oxygen.
Naked mole rats live in big colonies underground, which means oxygen is at a premium. When needed, they can "fuel anaerobic glycolysis with fructose by a rewired pathway that avoids tissue damage." Basically they change the way they harvest sugar in their body so it doesn’t require oxygen use.
Compare that to humans. A heart attack or a stroke stops the flow of oxygenated blood, and the victim has a few minutes before brain cells begin to die. If we can learn how to harness the glucose process that naked mole rats use, we can help buy victims time while they’re oxygen-deprived and get them to a hospital.
So, naked mole rats: the key to helping heart attack victims, and potentially to immortality.
Unlocking genetic secrets with dog DNA
We’ve talked about dog DNA in the past, but mostly in the context of figuring out which breed your dog actually is. Turns out that the results of those tests might play a big role in the future of human health.
A recent study by the National Institutes of Health looked at the genetic history of 161 breeds of dogs to better map out their evolutionary past. Dogs are pretty amazing because they’ve basically adapted to whatever humans have needed them for. Sometimes they needed to be hunters, sometimes they needed to be herders, sometimes they need to fit into a New York City studio apartment. Dogs are resilient and adaptable.
But what does this have to do with humans? As one researcher in the study said, "Study after study tells us that disease genes found in dogs are revealing for human health as well." Dogs and humans share 84% of the same DNA (I assume the other 16% has to do with tails), and so we suffer from a lot of the same ailments – cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more.
This study aims to identify genetic mutations associated with canine diseases and, more specifically, when those mutations took place. By looking a the constantly shifting genetic history of dogs, researchers hope to identify disease-causing genes and use that information in formulating cures for humans and dogs alike.
A lot of these studies and methods still have a long way to go before they’re ready to scale to a global level. But they just go to show that there’s a lot that we still don’t know – about ourselves and the world – that can benefit us in the future.