Could starfish inspire new cure for inflammation?

Rebecca Morelle goes searching for starfish with the Scottish Association for Marine Science's Dr David Hughes

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Lurking in the seas of Scotland is an unlikely candidate for a medical breakthrough.

But scientists believe the starfish could hold the key to finding a new treatment for inflammatory conditions such as asthma, hay fever and arthritis.

The species they are interested in is the spiny starfish (Marthasterias glacialis), and in particular the slimy goo that covers its body.

The team says that chemicals in this coating could inspire new medicines.

Diver with starfish The spiny starfish can be found on the west coast of Scotland

While most man-made structures that are placed in the water rapidly get caked with a mixture of marine life, starfish manage to keep their surface clear.

Dr Charlie Bavington, from GlycoMar, a marine biotechnology company based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, explained: "Starfish live in the sea, and are bathed in a solution of bacteria, larvae, viruses and all sorts of things that are looking for somewhere to live.

"But starfish are better than Teflon: they have a very efficient anti-fouling surface that prevents things from sticking."

And it is this non-stick property that has grabbed medical scientists' attention, particularly in the field of inflammation.

Sticky problem

Inflammation is the body's natural response to an injury or infection, but inflammatory conditions are caused when the immune system begins to rage out of control.

White blood cells, which normally flow easily through our blood vessels, begin to build up and stick to the blood vessel wall, and this can cause tissue damage.

Dr Charlie Bavington shows how starfish slime is produced

The idea is that a treatment based on starfish slime could effectively coat our blood vessels in the same way the goo covers the marine creature, and prevent this problem.

Dr Bavington said: "It is a very similar situation to something sticking to a starfish in the sea.

"These cells have to stick from a flowing medium to a blood vessel wall, so we thought we could learn something from how starfish prevent this so we could find a way to prevent this in humans."

While many inflammatory conditions can be effectively treated, for example with steroids, these drugs can often cause unwanted side effects.

Start Quote

We are learning all the time from nature about how to find new medicines”

End Quote Professor Clive Page KCL

But scientists at King's College London (KCL) think starfish could offer a better solution, and they have been analysing the chemicals in the creature's non-stick slime.

Clive Page, professor of pharmacology at KCL, said: "The starfish have effectively done a lot of the hard work for us.

"Normally when you are trying to find a new drug to go after a particular target in human beings, you have to screen hundreds of molecules to find something that will give you a lead.

"The starfish is effectively providing us with something that is giving is different leads: it has had billions of years in evolution to come up with molecules that do specific things."

Having identified promising compounds, the team is now working on creating their own versions of them in the laboratory. They want to create a treatment that is inspired by starfish goo rather than one that is made from it.

Professor Page said: "Conceptually we know this is the right approach.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow afternoon, but we are learning all the time from nature about how to find new medicines."

Underwater pharmacy

While the starfish-based cure might be some years off, the race to explore the oceans for its medical potential is only just beginning.

Spiny starfish Starfish could be one of many marine creatures to inspire new medicines

A sea snail has already formed the basis of a new painkiller, and scientists are starting to look at a whole range of marine life, from sea cucumbers to seaweed.

Dr David Hughes, an ecologist from the Scottish Association for Marine Science, explained: "Some of the most widespread, widely used medicines come from nature.

"Penicillin is a mould that grows on bread, aspirin comes from willow trees, so it's not too surprising turning to nature to find useful drugs. But we've only very recently begun to look to the sea for a useful source of medicines."

And with the oceans covering nearly three quarters of the Earth's surface, scientists have likened the deep to an untapped underwater pharmacy.

Dr Hughes told the BBC: "There is such a huge diversity of animals and plants living in the oceans and very few of them have been tested and investigated in any way.

"We know marine animals and plants produce a huge range of compounds, sometimes very different compounds from those produced by animals and plants on land.

"So many might have useful properties that could be brought into medicine and other medicinal applications."

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