Looking to the animal kingdom for the future of healthcare

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  Posted by: Dental Design      17th September 2022

Since time immemorial, humans have worked closely with the animal kingdom. We’ve harnessed their skills and superior senses, learning from them and forming unbreakable bonds that have ensured many creatures remain an important part of our lives today.

For example, horses were once essential for transportation, and also helped us in agriculture where they pulled ploughs and carried items that were too heavy for humans. Cats hunted rodents to protect food and our homes, ferrets and falcons were used to hunt and pigeons were trained to deliver messages – many of the relationships that we have had with animals throughout history are fundamental in where our society has ended up today.

Indeed, these connections persist in the modern day, too. Sniffer dogs have been trained to help the police and the armed forces to uncover dangerous substances and rats are used to detect landmines. Multiple species have been trained as companions to assist people with their anxiety or depression and there are many animals that can give disabled individuals a new lease of life – acting as either their eyes or their ears to help them navigate the modern world.

While our relationship may have evolved and shifted over time, it’s clear that the animal kingdom can be one of our strongest allies.

But what has this got to do with healthcare?

Part of what makes animals so incredible is that they have abilities that humans can only dream of. Whether that’s the ability to produce venoms and poisons or the availability of heightened senses that far exceed our own, animals have already helped transform the modern medical landscape in a number of ways.

An example of this is how venom from one of the world’s deadliest spiders has been found to help with heart attacks. A specific molecule in the venom from the funnel web spider can prevent damage caused by heart attack and also help extend the life of donor hearts awaiting organ transplantation.[i]

Leeches are still used in modern medicine, and have been found to be highly beneficial in a number of areas, including dermatology, reconstructive surgery and cardiovascular disease treatment. They are famed for their blood-sucking powers, but they also act as a blood thinner, anaesthetic, produce chemicals that reduce swelling and an antibiotic that aids wound healing.[ii]

Let’s get more dental specific – what about the device that can identify tooth demineralisation using the glow from bioluminescent dinoflagellates (plankton)?[iii] How about the growing practice of using companion animals to help alleviate fear in those who have dental anxiety or dental phobia?

It’s amazing what powers we can harness from the natural world and what this could mean for our oral health in the future.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that science keeps uncovering new ways that the animal kingdom can help us. I recently read some ground-breaking research from the University of Michigan that revealed that locusts can use their brains and antennae to detect mouth cancer.[iv] According to this research, locusts use their antennae to already detect chemical changes in the air, which is how they seek out crops to feed on. Utilising this, scientists tested their response to three different types of mouth cancer growing on human tissue alongside other samples that weren’t cancerous. Locusts were reliably able to detect mouth cancer each time, even being able to differentiate between the types of mouth cancer in each case (which was identified by measuring their brain waves).

This could be revolutionary in the fight against mouth cancer moving forward. Around 8,300 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK.[v] This type of cancer is becoming more common, with case numbers rising by 60% over the last ten years.[vi] Dentists and dental care professionals are well placed to identify mouth cancer, but even so it’s no easy business and there are plenty of occasions where a lesion that looks suspicious can be totally harmless and vice versa. If we can somehow harness the ability of locusts in the future to identify cancerous cells, this has the potential to make a huge impact on detection times, and, with treatment always being easier when detected early, survival rates in mouth cancer cases as well.

This is particularly interesting when you consider that locusts are, for the most part, considered a huge pest due to their ability to destroy crops in mere minutes. It just goes to show that all of the creatures on earth have their benefits!

While our societies evolve and our relationship with the animal world continues to change, it’s exciting to imagine what other interesting ways we can work with animals will be revealed in the future. I, for one, can’t wait to see what will be discovered next.


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[i] The University of Queensland. Repairing Hearts With Deadly Spider Venom. Link: https://imb.uq.edu.au/article/2021/07/repairing-hearts-deadly-spider-venom [Last accessed July 22].

[ii] NHS. Leech Therapy – Hirudotherapy. Link: https://www.uhcw.nhs.uk/download/clientfiles/files/leech%20therapy(1).pdf [Last accessed July 22].

[iii] Calcivis. Bioluminescence: How It Is Transforming Minimally Invasive Dentistry. Link:   https://calcivis.com/articles/bioluminescence-transforming-minimal-invasive-dentistry/ [Last accessed July 22].

[iv] Phys.Org. Using a Locust’s Brain and Antennae To Detect Mouth Cancer. Link: https://phys.org/news/2022-06-locust-brain-antennae-mouth-cancer.html#:~:text=A%20team%20of%20researchers%20at,on%20the%20bioRxiv%20preprint%20server. [Last accessed July 22].

[v] NHS. Mouth Cancer overview. Link: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/mouth-cancer/#:~:text=Mouth%20cancer%20is%20the%206th,over%20the%20age%20of%2055. [Last accessed July 22].

[vi] Cancer Research. Mouth Cancer Rates on the Rise. Link: https://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2015/11/13/mouth-cancer-rates-are-increasing-but-why/#:~:text=In%20fact%2C%20the%20rate%20of,six%20in%20every%20100%2C000%20today. [Last accessed July 22].

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