Shark on the gums

Shark jaw. Laboratory of the New Materials Group of the University of Vigo.

Jorge has broken a tooth chewing an olive pit. Fishing boats return to Vigo from the Indian Ocean full of sharks, a large part of which must be discarded. Neither Jorge nor the owner of those vessels may suspect that the problems of each one will be the solutions for the other. He’ll heal its teeth with parts removed from the mouth of the sharks, whilst the cargo owner will achieve an economic return from the remains intended for the discards container.

Research carried out in Vigo with excellent results, and already tested, will allow him the use of the teeth of the blue shark and mako shark species for the generation of bone tissue, useful in the fields of traumatology and, especially, dentistry in what is an innovative biomedical breakthrough and innovative utilisation of marine resources.

Three years of studies by researchers from the New Materials Group of the University of Vigo, integrated into the Biocaps project, are about to bear fruit and enable the story of Jorge and Copemar culminating in the achievement of the patent. Jorge is the name that Biocaps, the program of the Vigo Institute of Biomedical Research, chose for the fictional character of a promotional video directed by Paulino Pérez who tries to expose the usefulness of the research in a didactic way. And Copemar is the shipping company that works on the project, within the framework of the European MARMED innovative product development programme for the valorisation of marine resources.

The valorisation of shark teeth is a clear example of the possibilities of red biotechnology, technology directed toward medicine. There is nothing new about rendering animal parts for the preparation of biological ceramics, but the use of bovine bone that had been used until now has been complicated after confirmation of the risk of BSE transmission, known as mad cow disease, a risk that disappears with the use of shark teeth. Shark parts are not toxic, as has been demonstrated in the laboratories of the Vigo New Materials Group.

Sharks at Vigo Fish Market.
Sharks at Vigo Fish Market.

In the fishing port of Vigo, one of the most important in the world, 3,000 tonnes of shark – mainly blue and mako sharks coming from the Indian Ocean – , make it the principal port in Spain for this species. The fins are in high demand in the Asian market and the meat is sold in Europe, but the volume of discards that the ship-owners have to manage in almost all the animals is huge.

“The management of marine resources is not carried out in a sustainable manner, which carries the discarding of products with high upside potential,” says Julia Serra, of the research group. The MARMED project allows case studies in collaboration with industry for the generation of biomedical products with high added value from the companies.

The process that the tintorera and marrajo teeths are subjected is relatively simple. Begins with washing and drying parts to proceed after his grind and sift. A temperature of 1500 centigrade degrees removes any organic moiety. The material is subjected to a morphological study to characterize and you’re ready for biological testing. Those made with rat skull gave sensational results, so that the integrated Biocaps group has already started the process to get a European patent is expected within weeks.

“Once we get the patent, the next step is to find a company that wants to license” continues Serra. An agreement with a company protected by a confidentiality clause has virtually tied product marketing. The university professor, who heads the project together with Professor Pío González, remember with particular emotion the time they observed the final material.” A “very friendly” material, which confirmed the intuition that the shark tooth was perfect for them project.

To be exact, it was not an intuition that led Serra and Gonzalez to undertake research but sure they were in the right no synthetic material for implants used by dentists. “By their morphology, porosity, its extraordinary hardness, fluoride, lack of decay …” Thanks to his research, Jorge can says with pride that he wears a shark on the gums.

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