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Healing ability of dolphins could help humans

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

How do dolphins escape infection, regenerate tissue and avoid pain?

Research has found dolphins have a profound ability to heal that could someday help humans. In studies, Michael Zasloff, M.D., Ph.D found antimicrobial properties in the skin of frogs and dogfish.

Now Zasloff, a Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) scientist, is studying how dolphins heal from injury in hopes of helping humans.

According to a letter published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Zasloff cites the "remarkable" and "mysterious" ability of dolphins to heal, obtained from literature reviews and interviews conducted with dolphin handlers and marine biologists throughout the world. Some of the information is new.

He hopes the information would lead to research that could help humans with new antibiotics and pain.

According to the scientist:

"Much about the dolphin's healing process remains unreported and poorly documented. How does the dolphin not bleed to death after a shark bite? How is it that dolphins appear not to suffer significant pain? What prevents infection of a significant injury? And how can a deep, gaping wound heal in such a way that the animal's body contour is restored? Comparable injuries in humans would be fatal. "

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Dolphins bitten by sharks don’t get infections. Zasloff says the secret is probably in the blubber that might be further explored for antibiotics.

Zasloff adds, "It's most likely that the dolphin stores its own antimicrobial compound and releases it when an injury occurs. "This action could control and prevent microbial infection while at the same time prevent decomposition around the animal's injury."

Dolphins also don't experience pain from injury, which Zasloff says is probably an adaption necessary for survival. Understanding the neurological and physiological mechanism could lead to insights for helping humans control pain.

Dolphins also have a unique ability to heal, which is more like regeneration, much like what occurs with fetuses in the womb. "The repair of a gaping wound to an appearance that is near normal requires the ability of the injured animal to knit newly formed tissues with the existing fabric of adipocytes, collagen and elastic fibers," explains Zasloff.

Zasloff says he is “reasonably certain” exploring how dolphins adapt to escape infection in an aquatic environment and heal from severe wounds would lead to new medications and therapies that can help humans. The hope is that Zasloff’s letter and insights will stimulate the research community.

Journal of Investigative Dermatology doi:10.1038/jid.2011.220
Observations on the Remarkable (and Mysterious) Wound-Healing Process of the Bottlenose Dolphin
Michael Zasloff
July 21, 2011

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Updated October 29, 2016