First aid and medicines from the ocean.

A World Oceans Day special blog.

June 8th each year is World Oceans Day – a day to celebrate, learn and be inspired by the oceans that cover two thirds of our planet. But what has this got to do with first aid?

The ocean – with its amazing biodiversity – offers many more organisms for scientists to discover and develop new medicines. Scientists have extracted chemicals from corals and sponges that fight some of the worst infectious bacteria and many other micro-organisms, seaweeds, snails and crustaceans are proving very beneficial in the search for new medicines.

The nature of living in an aquatic environment offers many challenges such as hot underwater springs, icy waters, great pressures at different depths plus strong oceanic currents. Any organism living in the ocean needs to be able to feed, breed and defend itself from predators, recover from injury and thrive in the changing environment in which they live.

Here just some of the first aid products or medicines that currently exist or are being developed from the oceans of the world.

Haemostatic bandages stop bleeding within a few minutes and are derived from marine crustaceans.
Haemostatics are also available in strips for ‘wound packing’ into deeper wounds.

Haemostatics

Anyone who has attended one of our Outdoor, Forestry or Advanced First Aid courses would have seen the range of haemostatic products available and learnt about their uses.

The use of haemostatics is one of the main advances in first aid in recent times.

Haemostatics are used to accelerate blood clotting at a surgical site so a casualty will not bleed to death. There are different products and mechanisms but mainly aim to encourage coagulation or stick tissues together.

Haemostatic products come in two main forms: granular powder and embedded/impregnated dressings. There are also ‘styptics’ which are haemostatic filled tubes that are used to seal blood vessels and often deep, narrow wounds. (An older version of these were often used to stop bleeding after shaving.)

Chitosan is one of the main ingredients in haemostatics and is made from the exo-skeleton of marine crustaceans, mainly Atlantic shrimps. If a shrimp is injured and bleeds, it stops bleeding very quickly due to the chitosan in its outer layers. In humans, chitosan bonds with platelets and red blood cells to form a gel-like clot which seals a bleeding vessel. Its action continues to function even when the casualty has been prescribed anticoagulants like heparin or warfarin.

Haemostatic bandages are one of the most effective products in a first aid kit in high risk professions, road traffic accidents and remote areas where medical help is often delayed. Stopping a big bleed quickly is important to prevent further blood loss and shock but is most importantly a life saving essential.

‘Wound packing’ for deep, open wounds is a technique we teach on our first aid courses using a strip of dressing impregnated with a haemostatic agent. This allows very quick and effective method of stopping bleeding and preventing infection. When the casualty arrives at hospital, the firm gel that has formed by the haemostatic agent is easily washed from the wound ready for surgery.

Antibiotics from corals and sponges

Scientists have extracted chemicals from corals and sponges that fight some of the worst infectious bacteria. In order to make these new antibiotics, scientists make copies of these chemicals in a laboratory. This way they won’t have to constantly harvest corals from the ocean, leaving our marine ecosystems healthy and intact.  With many bacterial infections becoming more and more resistant to our current antibiotic array, finding new sources is a priority for human health.

Sea urchins may have the key to treating cancers and other diseases

Cancer and Alzheimer drugs from sea urchins

Sea urchins and sponges have a special genetic sequence previously only thought to be used by certain viruses. This sequence has been used in human gene therapy to treat a number of cancers. It has also been used to produce human stem cells – a very important step in regenerative medicine in which damaged tissues can be replaced. This can be used to treat a very wide range of diseases such as cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. Although still in the research phase, there have been more than 600 academic papers published on this particular biotechnology in recent years.

Our most recent challenge in dealing with Coronavirus has also been aided by this research as the process for biomedicine provides more tools in the fight against diseases.

Cancer cures from coral ecosystems

Deep-sea sponges and corals live throughout the world’s oceans in unique and fragile ecosystems that have been barely studied but they are natural disease fighters. Scientists believe they hold important properties that already are producing treatments for some cancers as they have genes, proteins, and metabolic pathways that are similar to humans.

Sponges can’t move. To defend themselves they produce chemicals, some of which are shown to fight infection in humans, and further protect their territory by stopping other organisms’ cells from dividing and taking over – similar to how drugs stop the spread of cancer.

Bone grafts and anti-inflammatories from corals and sea fans.

The skeletons of sponges and bamboo corals are being studied to develop ways to grow bone for grafting and dental implants. Researchers have also discovered that one type of coral, also known as sea fans, contains powerful anti-inflammatory chemicals.

Anti-viral and anti-cancer compounds from seaweeds and marine algae

Seaweeds have long been known for their health properties as a food and in medical use such as the production of agar, a product used to grow bacteria and other microorganisms for study in labs.

Some polysaccharides (complex sugars) from red seaweeds show antiviral activities towards viruses responsible for human infectious diseases including HIV, Herpes and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults.   There is no specific treatment for RSV infection, though researchers are working to develop vaccines and antivirals using these seaweeds.

A carrageenan seaweed based vaginal microbicide has been shown to block HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The Bryopsis species of marine algae are known for their activity against tuberculosis but more recently they are being studied for the treatment of lung cancer, tumours, AIDS and cystic fibrosis. Bryopsis is more commonly known as a ’pest’ of aquarium owners where it is difficult to clear away. Invasive green algae that grow as algal blooms in nature are now being considered for extraction to then harvest the compounds for use in medicinal purposes.

Other current studies into marine medicines

Lampreys against brain cancer and stroke; sea squirts against asthma, prostate and breast cancer; marine bacteria against melanoma cancers;  fish ‘slime’ against MRSA infections; sea snails against chronic pain; starfish against inflammatory conditions. The list goes on.

Starfish may lead to treatments for inflammatory conditions.
Sea squirts have anti-cancer properties

Bacteria cultured from the slimy coating on fish has been shown to be effective against MRSA.

Are there any issues in getting medicines from the sea?

Technological challenges over obtaining samples and harvesting are being overcome with the use of deep sea robots and other sampling vessels.

Quantifying how much to harvest along with the difficulty of growing marine species in a lab or aquarium. The ecology of a large ocean is difficult to reproduce in even our largest aquariums. There are many ethical decisions to be made regarding harvesting versus the creation of compounds in the lab as replicating the molecules required in a lab is a long and complicated path.

As with any new medicines, it takes 10 years on average to develop through trials and clinical approval. During development, drugs do not always perform the way we expect and may have dangerous side effects. Many years and millions of pounds may be spent only to have to be abandoned due to side effects or performance issues.

In the sea bed and water layers, damage by human activity is already destroying habitats, jeopardising potential future discoveries. As well as pollution and silting, the main threats are often from fishing gear, oil and gas development and changing ocean conditions due to climate change.

Within 200 miles of a nation’s coastline, there are clearly defined laws about how the sea can be exploited. Beyond this boundary, the area is governed by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. The challenge for all this potential exploitation is compliance and surveillance.

However, the potential of marine biotechnologies is a strong driving force behind efforts to conserve their valuable habitats, an important change from our approach on land.

There is a great deal of research into marine sourced medicines that may well appear on your first aid course in the future!