- Sharks have a high level of resilience against cancer due to unique antibodies.
- Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.
- A new study is utilizing shark antibodies to slow and potentially stop the growth of breast cancer cells.
Characterized in film and media as ferocious and malicious creatures, sharks ignite our basic survival instincts: kill or be killed. However, antibodies in the blood of these ocean carnivores could lead to a new treatment for breast cancer, the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States. By the time you have finished reading this article 5 more women will have been diagnosed with breast cancer, the second deadliest cancer in American women after lung cancer (“U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics,” 2015).
Sharks have a high level of resilience against cancer (Handwerk, 2003). Biologists at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom are investigating an antibody specifically found in sharks’ blood that may account for this resilience and help lead to treatments for human breast cancer (Shark antibodies).
Shark antibodies work differently from those of humans and because of their shape can insert themselves into places where larger, human antibodies cannot (Potts, 2013). One particular antibody can bind to molecules that cause breast cancer cells to grow and divide at unprecedented speeds, preventing the molecules that trigger the growth from binding there. The antibody holds a key to slowing down and possibly even killing breast cancer cells (Mercer 2008).What’s on the Surface Does Matter
This shark-based antibody works by targeting two molecules, HER2 and HER3, found on the surface of cancer cells. When these molecules pair up on the surface of a cancer cell, they signal it to grow and divide. One in four women with breast cancer has HER2-positive breast cancer, where a very high level of HER2 is found on the surface of her cancer cells (Potts, 2013). HER2-positive breast cancer is very aggressive and has a higher rate of recurrence than HER2-negative breast cancers (Madell 2014).
Despite the fact that breast cancer death rates have been declining since about 1989, a woman dies of breast cancer in the United States every 15 minutes (“What Are the Key Statistics About Breast Cancer?,” 2015). Currently, there are drugs that effectively target HER2, but resistance to treatment is an increasing problem. Researchers are investigating whether the shark antibody could be used to block the HER2 and HER3 receptors, paving the way for a new group of drugs to treat this type of deadly breast cancer (Potts 2013).