September 1, 2008 Veterinarians added a bioadhesive to an existing antimicrobial agent in order to make it an effective protective agent for aquatic animals such as whales. The adhesive was originally developed to treat burns on humans, but the adhesive helps it stay in place underwater, providing protection from infection and allowing animals' natural defenses work to heal wounds.
Anytime you cut yourself or get a burn, one of the biggest roadblocks to healing is infection. That's especially true for burn patients and those with extremely sensitive skin.
Now, there may be a new weapon in the war against infections -- even against dangerous germs like MRSA, Super-Staph and other drug-resistant bacteria; and humans aren't the only ones who stand to benefit Beluga whales, native to the arctic, are some of the Georgia Aquarium's most popular and talkative residents.
John Widgery is a firefighter of more than 20 years. In an unusual trial, man and beluga became the first test patients for a new kind of anti-microbial compound that enhances the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight dangerous infections.
"We can take even the most drug-resistant bacteria and make them susceptible to very low concentrations of what we call low-class antibiotics; things that aren't really considered to work anymore," says Branson Ritchie, D.V.M., Ph.D., a professor at the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine. "We can take those very drug-resistant bacteria and kill them."
Widgery became one of the first human patients to be treated with the compound after an explosion left him with first- and second-degree burns on his face and arms. "When I stood up, I thought my hair was in my face," says Widgery. "I wiped my face and found out it was my skin that was hanging in my eyes and my mustache. I reached for it and it was gone. My eyebrows were gone."
After 12 days of treatment with the experimental anti-microbial, the results were astounding. Widgery's skin is now back to normal. Meanwhile, University of Georgia veterinarians found they could adapt the same experimental compound to protect beluga whales from dangerous infections by adding a bioadhesive that makes the compound stay on underwater.
"The bioadhesive will stick to those lesions, keep them protected from their aquatic environment and let their bodies do the natural defense that they need to do while protecting it from the environment," Dr. Ritchie says. It's disease-fighting research for animals -- and people. Widgery is grateful he was part of it.
"I am not a person that cares what I look like, but I am so thankful that I don't have those scars," Widgery says. The whales aren't complaining either.
The human anti-microbial Silvion has now received FDA marketing approval and is available to treat everything from skin cuts to burn injuries. The animal version, Tricide, is being used to treat animals at zoos and aquariums to prevent infection and promote healing.
WHAT ARE ANTIMICROBIALS? Microbes are tiny, single-celled organisms that can live in almost any environment. They include bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. Some microbes are useful, or even good for your health: foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and cheese are all made using bacteria. But a small percentage -- less than 1 percent -- can cause diseases in humans. Antimicrobials are substances that kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. They can occur naturally or be synthetic compounds. Organic acids and their salts are the most common antimicrobial materials.
ABOUT BIOADHESIVES: Bioadhesives are sticky substances derived from, or based on, molecules produced by living organisms. Often, scientists study them because they seek to mimic the adhesives made by animals like gecko lizards, mussels, and insects. Developing an adhesive able to work underwater or that can be attached and pulled apart repeatedly, without losing stickiness, are features that many scientists seek to imitate. From coverings that attach to a wound and encourage healing to applications that join pieces of wood for carpenters, bioadhesives are being used in many fields of research.
The information contained in the TV portion of this report was written with support from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.