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Friday, 23 August, 2002, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
'Sea cow' could give cancer clues
Manatee
The manatee lives in rivers and shallow coastal waters
Creatures called manatees, found in shallow waters in many parts of the world, could help scientists find ways to beat cancer.

These marine mammals have a supercharged immune system, and doctors are hoping for tips on how to provide a boost for humans.

The immune system is seen as increasingly important in the search for new treatments for both cancer, and infections such as HIV.

Manatees seem able to fend off just about any disease, and it is this ability that scientists at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute are hoping to harness.

At the moment the team are looking at the response of the manatee to papillomavirus, a version of which is implicated in the development of cervical cancer in humans.


The manatee immune system is really extraordinary

Dr Greg Bossart
Dr Greg Bossart, from the institute, has discovered that manatees can become infected with papillomavirus in the wild, and appear to fall prey to cancers as a result.

He plans to take blood samples and tumour tissue from the animals at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park in Florida.

Virus plan

The hope is that understanding how the papillomavirus circumvents the supercharged immune system of the manatee could provide clues to fighting that process in humans.

Dr Bossart said: "The way this virus produces in manatees is similar to the way it produces in cervical cancer in humans.

"It's a fascinating opportunity to learn more not only about the pathogenesis of the virus in manatees but also an opportunity to develop an approach to fighting the virus which I think is eventually going to benefit humans as well."

Harbor Brank Oceanographic Institution is raising $6m to building a 600,000 gallon rehabilitation tank for the manatees.

Dr Bossart said: "The manatee immune system is really extraordinary, and it's my hope that our work could eventually point the way toward a better understanding of the immune system and therefore a better understanding of diseases such as HIV/Aids."

Mermaid

Manatees are part of the scientific order of "sirenians", along with similar creatures such as Dugongs.

It has been suggested that they may have given rise to the legend of mermaids.

Campaigners in Florida have been working to increase the numbers of these beasts, with fears that many are being affected by pollution, and at risk from injury from leisure boats.

See also:

09 Dec 00 | Americas
05 Jan 01 | Americas
13 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
13 Feb 02 | Animals
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