Starfish slime could hold key to new treatments for asthma and arthritis

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SLIME from starfish found in Scottish waters could provide a cure to inflammatory conditions such as asthma, hayfever and arthritis.

A team based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, Argyll, have been studying the substance produced by the creatures and say it has the potential to be a vital weapon in the fight against infections.

The slime prevents debris sticking to the spiny starfish which are found on the west coast of Scotland.

Inflammatory conditions are caused when the body's natural response to infections accelerates out of control.

Infection-fighting white blood cells begin to build up in the blood vessels and stick to the sides, which can cause tissue damage.

Lead researcher Dr Charlie Bavington, of marine biotechnology firm GlycoMar, said the slime which covers the starfish could coat the blood vessels which would let the white blood cells flow more easily.

He said: "Starfish live in the sea, bathed in a solution of bacteria, larvae, viruses and all sorts of things looking for somewhere to live.

"But starfish are better than Teflon: they have a very efficient anti-fouling surface that prevents things from sticking.

"In humans cells stick from a flowing medium to a blood vessel wall, so we thought we could learn something from how starfish prevent this so we could find a way to prevent it in humans."

The team say they have identified promising compounds in the starfish slime and are working on creating their own version of them in the laboratory.

If successful the treatment could replace the use of steroids which can often cause unwanted side effects. Clive Page, professor of pharmacology at King's College London, who is also working on the project, said: "The starfish have effectively done a lot of the hard work for us.

"Normally when you are trying to find a new drug to go after a particular target in human beings, you have to screen hundreds of molecules to find something that will give you a lead.

"The starfish is effectively providing us with something that is giving us different leads: it has had billions of years in evolution to come up with molecules that do specific things."

Dr David Hughes, an ecologist from the Scottish Association for Marine Science, said marine life offered a vast range of possibilities for medicines.

He said: "Some of the most widespread, widely used medicines come from nature.

"There is such a huge diversity of animals and plants living in the oceans and very few of them have been tested and investigated in any way.

"We know marine animals and plants produce a huge range of compounds, sometimes very different compounds from those produced by animals and plants on land."So many might have useful properties that could be brought into medicine and other medicinal applications."

A spokeswoman for Allergy UK said: "This is an exciting development and could be very interesting. Anything that can help prevent allergies such as asthma and hayfever is to be welcomed."