Sharks: From Mortal Foes to Medical Inspiration

Ironically, the terror of the seas may prove to be instrumental in preventing/reducing infections, saving countless people from suffering and even death.

Shark Pic

When Peter Benchley released the book “Jaws” in 1974, he made sharks Public Enemy #1. Millions of people stayed out of the oceans—or at the water’s edge. But, as it turns out, this much-feared fish had gotten a bad rap. They weren’t out hunting people for lunch after all. And now, it seems sharks—or at least a part of their anatomy—can be a valuable asset to the medical world. Why?

As the Biomimicry Institute has stated in the past, shark skin has some amazing qualities. While many other water species—and even ships—accumulate biofouling as they move through the water, sharks don’t. In fact, even bacteria can’t adhere to their skin. This resistance comes not so much from the chemical makeup of their skin as its pattern.

While shark skin may appear relatively smooth to the naked eye, it is actually made up of thousands of backward diamond-shaped pointing grooves and ridges. These dermal denticles keep bacteria from attaching and growing on the shark’s skin.

Sharks in the medical toolkit

It’s this ability of shark skin resisting bacterial growth that inspired Dr. Anthony Brennan, the founder of Sharklet Technologies and honorary chair of the company’s scientific advisory board, to create Sharklet, the first surface technology to inhibit the growth of bacteria through pattern alone.

Influenced by the shape and pattern of the dermal denticles of shark skin, the Sharklet surface is comprised of millions of microscopic features arranged in a distinct diamond pattern. The structure of the pattern inhibits bacteria from attaching to it, colonizing, and forming biofilms.

The effectiveness of Sharklet was proven in a study on preventing/reducing catheter-associated urinary tract infections. In the study, three variations of Sharklet micropatterned silicone rods and a smooth silicone rod were placed between two agar islands to measure E. coli migration. The results?

In tryptic soy broth and artificial urine, Sharklet micropattern surfaces, on average, achieved a 47% reduction in colonization-forming units and bacterial area coverage, plus a 77% reduction in colony size, compared to the nonpatterned surfaces. E. coli migration over the segments was reduced by more than 80% on the Sharklet transverse patterned rod, compared to the unpatterned control rods.

The company now produces the Sharklet Foley catheter incorporating its proven technology.

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Shark skin helping human skin

Sharklet also uses its technology’s demonstrated effectiveness in its Sharkskin wound dressing, which promotes healing without autologous skin grafting.

Utilizing a new micropattern designed to promote cellular migration, the Sharkskin wound dressing’s apical layer accelerates re-epithelialization by as much as 64%, while the base layer uses small pores to promote the formation of new blood vessels and dermal tissue. Consequently, the dermal layer of the skin heals at the same time as the epithelial layer.

As a plus, using additive printing, every Sharkskin full-thickness wound dressing can be rapidly produced and customized to the unique needs of each patient—at the point-of-care.

So, the next time you’re at the aquarium staring into the dark eyes of a shark, be not afraid. This guy may be one of the greatest marine allies we humans could ever have.