Can Dolphin Self-Healing Save Human Lives?

Ordinary Dolphins, Extraordinary Powers

Do dolphins hold the key to the regeneration of human body parts? (Photo: lowjumpingfrog/Flickr)
Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

A capacity to self-heal after, say, a vicious shark bite, an indifference to pain, a resistance to infection—these life-saving abilities, usually the stuff of comic book superheroes, are, it turns out, found inside your average, run-of-the-ocean dolphin.

And a new study conducted by a Georgetown University scientist suggests that the medical research community would be wise to look at dolphins for breakthroughs in how to care for human injuries.

"Much about the dolphin's healing process remains unreported and poorly documented," said the study's author, Micheal Zasloff, in a press release. The study was released today in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

"How does the dolphin not bleed to death after a shark bite? How is it that dolphins appear not to suffer significant pain? What prevents infection of a significant injury? And how can a deep, gaping wound heal in such a way that the animal's body contour is restored? Comparable injuries in humans would be fatal."

The study—which synthesized what limited literature exists on the topic with firsthand interviews Zasloff conducted with dolphin handlers—focuses on three sources of the cetacean self-healing.

Less Blood Loss

He proposes the same diving mechanism (diving reflex) that diverts blood from the periphery of the body during a dolphin's deep plunge down in water depths also could be triggered after an injury. Less blood at the body's surface means less blood loss.

Pain Tolerance

Zasloff's review suggests the dolphin's apparent indifference "clearly represents an adaptation favorable for survival." Still, he says, the neurological and physiological mechanisms engaged to reduce pain remain unknown.

Prevention of Infection

Despite gaping wounds and deep flesh tears, those who observe dolphins following shark bites have not noted significant infection. Zasloff says it's likely that the animal's blubber holds the key answers. "Its most likely that the dolphin stores its own antimicrobial compound and releases it when an injury occurs," Zasloff predicts. "This action could contol and prevent microbial infection while at the same time prevent decomposition around the anima's injury."

A noteworthy case in Zasloff's study was that of Nari, a dolphin at the Tangalooma Wild Dolphin Resort in Moretan Island, Austalian. She suffered a 35-inch shark bite—that's a gash the size of two footballs—in February 2009. Forty days later, the wound was almost one hundred percent healed. See the amazing photo below.

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From shark bite to shark scar in 40 days—with no antibiotics. (Photo: Trevor Hassard/Tangalooma Resort)

"If I saw this in a human being, I wouldn't believe it," Zasloff said. "It should awe us. You have an animal that has evolved in the ocean without hands or legs, which swims faster than we can, has intelligence that perhaps equals our social and emotional complexity, and its healing is almost alien compared to what we are capable of."

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