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Humpback whales help pioneer new heart treatment

  • Story Highlights
  • Scientists are learning new treatments for humans from the chimpanzees
  • A humpback whale's heart has 'nano' wires that could help treat heart disease
  • Sea cucumbers have provided the inspiration for a treatment for Parkinson's
  • Australian red algae have developed a compound that repels bacteria
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By Mark Wickstead
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LONDON, United Kingdom (CNN) -- Medicine has much to learn from nature. There are literally millions of medical compounds out there that could cure diseases, help improve treatment and even protect us from some types of bacteria.

Scientists have been tapping into nature's resources for inspiration on how to treat humans.

Humpback whales, sea cucumbers and Australian red algae are just a few of the species leading the way in modern medicine.

The humpback whale has a design within its heart that could help save the lives of many patients suffering from heart disease.

With a heart that can pump six bath tubs of blood around a circulation system that is 4,500 times as complex as our own, and in only three heartbeats a minute, it has fascinated scientists as to how it manages this feat.

But it was while studying how the whale's heart is able to do this that Dr Jorge Reynolds (who placed the first external pacemaker in the body of a priest who survived for an additional 17 years) discovered nano-sized 'wires'. These wires allow electrical signals to stimulate the heartbeats even through masses of non-conductive blubber.

This discovery could be the key to replacing the traditional pacemaker, scientists say. Instead of having to install a battery-powered pacemaker the whale 'wires' could be used to stimulate heart beats.

Whale 'wires' could save the extra bouts of surgery, which are currently needed to replace the batteries in pacemakers.

It doesn't end there. There's also the added bonus of saving money. With the worldwide market for pacemakers expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2010, this technology, which costs only a few cents to make, could replace pacemakers and save billions.

At Ohio's Cleveland West Reserve University Jeffrey Capadona has pioneered the creation of a material that could help treat Parkinson's disease, stroke and spinal chord injuries.

This time the inspiration was the humble sea cucumber, whose skin can change from a rigid to flexible state with ease.

Capadona argues that tiny electrodes implanted into the brain are sometimes used to treat Parkinson's disease, stroke and spinal chord injuries. But they can become less effective over time as the body creates scar tissue around the hard implant.

Using this new material, which was based on the skin of sea cucumber, could improve treatment as the material can become less rigid and prolong its effectiveness.

Even red algae have provided inspiration to scientists who now believe they could help control some diseases.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia, discovered that the red algae found just off the coast was free from biofilms-- a congregation of bacteria that are the cause of 70 percent of all human infections.

Pinpointing the compound that protects the algae from biofilms has led scientists to believe they will be able to control bacteria like cholera without it developing any resistance to the treatment.

Gunter Pauli, head of an organization called Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives (ZERI) says we need to rethink the way we use nature in our medical problems.

He told CNN: "The individual examples are great, but then the combination of many of these great technologies from nature makes it possible to imagine a new business model."

He cites the example of a red seaweed Delicia pulchra, which jams the communications of bacteria, preventing them from settling on its surface.

"How does it do that? By making the bacteria deaf. Now that is a fundamentally new way of looking at bactericides, instead of attempting to kill them, and then have to deal with their mutations, just make certain they cannot hear each other, " he says.

"This is a new look at therapeutics, but goes beyond the cure, it helps you rethink how nature deals with problems."

However, he is the first to admit that the skeptics to this new model are abundant.

"If you're Merck or Pfizer and you are making money on antibiotics, you do not even have the in house staff to look at 'jamming communications of bacteria.' "The shape of this molecule is totally different from the synthetic antibiotics that have been made, and there is zero in house reference material or knowledge.

"No one has this and therefore skepticism is often based on the fundamental novelty and the total lack of in house expertise."

It would seem that when it comes to medicine, nature has done all the hard work for us. Chimpanzees, whales and virtually every other species on the planet have been learning how to survive for millions of years.

When chimps are ill they search out trees that have been found to contain a chemical compound that shows promise in treating parasites such as pinworm, hookworm, and giardia in humans.

Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for the UN Environment Program, told CNN: "Many of the world's great pharmaceuticals have been derived from nature historically including aspirin, penicillin and the anti-breast cancer drug taxol."

"Nature has solved many of the challenges we face -- renewable energy (photosynthesis) or bacterial resistance to man-made antibiotics (certain kinds of algae) and has been testing these designs and processes for some four billion years."

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