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Starfish to inspire new cure for inflammation?

The humble starfish could hold the key to finding a new breakthrough treatment for inflammatory conditions such as asthma, hay fever and arthritis, scientists say.

world Updated: Dec 09, 2010 19:07 IST

The humble starfish could hold the key to finding a new breakthrough treatment for inflammatory conditions such as asthma, hay fever and arthritis, scientists say.

The species the scientists are interested in is the spiny starfish (Marthasterias glacialis), and in particular the slimy goo that covers its body, which they say could inspire new medicines since the coating contains chemicals.

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," Bavington was quoted as saying by the BBC.

And it is this non-stick property that has grabbed medical scientists' attention. 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.

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.

Bavington said: "It is a very similar situation to something sticking to a starfish in the sea. While many inflammatory conditions can be effectively treated, for example with steroids, these drugs can often cause unwanted side effects.

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

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.