Squalamine

Squalamine

An orthodox drug/chemical derived from the liver of sharks. In other words, the natural version of the molecule is illegal (because it cannot be patented), but the mutated version is legal.
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THE PROMISE OF NATURE'S PHARMACY

Harvesting and preserving millions of natural health-promoters
You're holding a frog firmly in both hands so it can't hop away, when suddenly it begins to ooze incredible amounts of a milky substance from every ooze hole in its body.

Sounds like a scene from Nightmare on Amphibian Lane, Part 3. But Prevention stands its ground. After all, we're not the ones holding the frog.

That job belongs to MichaelZasloff, M.D., Ph.D. But when he looks at what's in his hands, he sees beyond the mess. He has visions of miraculous new drugs, all derived from nature.

The frog juice, he tells us, is rich in a strong natural antibiotic, which he has named magainin, the Hebrew word for "shield." Studies suggest that the material--which is synthesized now, so frogs are safe--has the potency to fight a broad range of germs.

Dr. Zasloff and fellow researchers have also isolated a powerful antibiotic from the common dogfish, or sand shark, dubbed squalamine. That, too, seems to have great therapeutic promise, according to early research. The shark, experts note, rarely gets cancer and is apparently immune to viruses. Squalamine may be at least part of the reason for the shark's hardiness. Dr. Zasloff notes that the shark has a primitive immune system, and scientists have wondered why it generally seems to be in the pink. "I think that the shark is like a human with a weak, compromised immune system and that squalamine may be protecting it by instantly destroying most invaders," the physician speculates.
Zasloff says these antibiotics from living animals aren't just found in fish and reptiles. Already, magainin-like substances have been found lining parts of the human digestive tract. "These magainins could be why all the bacteria in our digestive tracts don't destroy the lining of the stomach and intestines. And, it could be that people with chronic inflammatory G.I. diseases simply aren't producing enough of these natural protectors to stay healthy," he theorizes.
Let's go back to that creamy frog for a minute. As a former professor of medicine and specialist in genetics at the University of Pennsylvania and at Children's Hospital, both in Philadelphia, Dr. Zasloff often did research with frogs. One day it struck him as mighty strange that the frogs rarely developed infections after undergoing surgery and being put back in tanks full of bacteria. So he began to look for an answer.

The result is Magainin Pharmaceuticals in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Zasloff heads up new research.
The reason Mr. Froggie was oozing, by the way, is that Dr. Zasloff gave him a poke or two, and then injected him with adrenaline to fool his body into thinking it was under serious attack.

In response, Mr. Froggie covered his skin with medicine, which not only fights infection but may also promote healing.
"Animal life has always been under attack," notes Dr. Zasloff. "There's always another animal--including many microscopic ones--that want to eat your lunch--or you. So the surviving animals had to develop many forms of defense.
"Nature," he admits, "is far smarter than humans at building these defenses. When I look at the molecular structure of substances like magainins and squalamine, I think we would have never dreamed these up in a million years."
What's more, the substances being discovered today at Dr. Zasloff's lab and others are extremely diverse. Each animal seems to have at least slightly different natural antibiotics. And there may be different antibiotics used in different parts of the body, depending on local need.

So as we look at nature, with all its species, it seems likely there are thousands, perhaps millions, of different health-protectors out there waiting to be discovered.

"We need all the help we can get," Dr. Zasloff emphasizes. "With AIDS, for instance, we have mapped out the genetic structure of the virus, yet we can't yet make a drug that will kill it without killing the body tissue as well. But nature is very good at that. The chemicals we've found, for instance, apparently distinguish membrane walls of germs from body tissue."

There is more to all this than new drugs, though.

Dr. Zasloff believes that we will learn how to increase the amount of natural defenders we produce. "Perhaps," he speculates, "we'll find that eating foods in a more `whole' state will do good things. Foods that haven't been processed and sterilized have more natural microbes on them--yeasts, for instance. While these aren't really dangerous to us, the body may sense these to be invaders and produce antibiotics, just like the frog when it's under stress. And those extra antibiotics could in fact kill germs that really are dangerous."

There are a few things we can do now besides waiting for these promises to unfold. One is cautionary. Don't be exploited by people selling unproven substances like powdered shark cartilage--which is not the same thing as squalamine.

Another is visionary. The eradication of tropical forests, estuaries and natural habitats also means the eradication of species, species that may hold blueprints for critical drugs we need now--or may need in the future. Scientists believe hundreds, possibly thousands of species worldwide are now being wiped out each year. Though many of them are insects, the fact is that a new antibiotic has been discovered in a moth. Whatever we can do to preserve large natural habitats--here or abroad--may mean more than most people imagine.

Plants need saving, too. You read in Prevention not long ago about taxol, a substance from a yew tree (which is not all that plentiful) that's shown great promise as a treatment for ovarian and breast cancer.

As Dr. Zasloff says: "Nature is smarter than we are." But we can at least be smart enough not to carelessly permit the destruction of nature's wisdom.

Till next month,

PHOTO: Natural habitats may hold the keys to major medical breakthroughs.
PHOTO: Mark Bricklin
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By Mark Bricklin, Editor
with Michele Toth, Research Associate

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