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Fish Factor

Amazing Gifts From the Sea
By Laine Welch


November 28, 2005

Almost everyone knows that eating fish is good for your health. But there's so much more to seafood than just putting it in your mouth. At this time of giving thanks, let us appreciate the many amazing gifts from the sea.
jpg Laine Welch

Sponge Bob, for example, could be the next rage in fiber optics. Researchers at Bell Labs have found that the sponge euplectella, also called the Venus flower basket, grows a network of glass fibers more advanced than the ones found in today's telecommunications networks. And unlike man made fibers, they are incredibly strong and don't fracture, meaning no costly repairs.

Researchers in New Zealand have found that adding fish oil to animal feed appears to reduce the release of methane gas by 25 to 40 percent in sheep.  About 22 percent of global emissions of methane is released through belching farm animals. It is a potent greenhouse gas because it traps nearly 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.

Asian cultures for hundreds of years have used jellyfish to treat arthritis, high blood pressure and back pain. Some jellyfish also have a special bioluminescence useful in medical research. The blood of horseshoe crabs is used to test intravenous drugs for bacteria.

Chitin, a substance found in the shells of crab, shrimp and other crustaceans, is packed with medical miracles. Researchers in Oregon discovered that the carbohydrate that makes up chitin bonds with red blood cells to form an artificial clot, and seals massive bleeding wounds in just 30 seconds -  far quicker than conventional bandages that simply absorb and then leak blood, and have been used since Roman times. Shrimp based bandages are being used by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bleeding is the main cause of death among soldiers in the field, and   doctors say the bandages could have saved thousands of lives if they were available during the Vietnam War. 

Ground up shrimp shells stirred into a nasal spray are being tested in England as a treatment for allergies and hay fever. The long term goal is to use the spray in children and babies to prevent allergies from ever developing.

Russian researchers at the Pacific Institute of Bio-Organic Chemistry have created a product from enzymes in king crab shells that helps heal severe burns. Called enzycol, it rapidly dissolves dead skin that forms after a burn. It promotes healing of the surrounding healthy tissue, thereby preventing infection. Other medicines made from crab wastes are used in cleansing lotions for burns, chilblains, gangrene and varicose sores.

The Russian scientists call sea urchin pigment remarkable for its anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. They have developed medications from urchins that are effective in treating eye and heart diseases. A compound in sea cucumbers forms the basis of a new immunity enhancing drug; another synthesized from brown seaweed reduces damage from radiation exposure.

A new pain medicine has been derived from the venom of the cone snail found in coral reefs off the Philippines. The snail based medicine is being used for patients with severe chronic pain that does not respond to other treatment.  Just a few micrograms is said to be one thousand times more potent than morphine. Researchers say the snail toxin blocks calcium channels that are the key to transmitting impulses from pain nerves to the spinal cord. The snail based medicine is not addictive, nor do users build up a tolerance to it. A drug called Prialt made from the snail toxin was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last December.

Many scientists believe the ocean is an untapped medicine cabinet, and nearly half the drugs on the market today trace their origins to a compound found in nature. About 15 drugs derived from marine organisms are reportedly in various stages of clinical trials for cancer treatments, and another half dozen for other diseases. One cancer compound derived from the lowly sea squirt appears to be especially promising. 


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.

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