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Flip Side of Flipper
The surprises that come along with classroom experiments and scientific observations often prompt kids and teenagers to consider careers in medicine or biology.
For Dr. Michael Zasloff, a native of Merion whose work with injured dolphins' ability to heal themselves has attracted worldwide attention, that moment of inspiration came from one of the most defining moments of Jewish history: Moses' discovery of the burning bush.
That story "exemplifies that Moses, in fact, was a scientist at heart," who, in the middle of tending sheep, "walks by this bush on fire, but observes the anomaly that it is not being consumed," says Zasloff, a Georgetown University School of Medicine professor and director of the school's surgical immunology and transplant department.
"It is this anomaly that strikes him, and once he appreciates what he is observing, God starts talking to him, acknowledges his realization that he is on hallowed ground and prompts him to find out what this discovery represents on a higher plane."
Practical lessons? "It is a perfect metaphor for a scientific discovery -- seeing something, and realizing it is special, and then understanding what to do next," explains Zasloff.
Though the native son asserts that he would have been involved in medicine and science no matter what his faith, "being Jewish has been a part of my life, even if the science I explore and the work I do originates from the 'gee whiz' reaction that comes from making a remarkable observation or discovery that is anomalous and surprising."
Here's a "gee whiz" all its own: Zasloff, founder of the biotechnology company Magainin Pharmaceuticals, with a host of medical posts pre-Georgetown that included faculty positions at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the directorship of the Division of Human Genetics of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has discovered that the healing process of dolphins may have human applications.
"My interest in this began when I was at the National Institutes of Health 25 years ago, and discovered that frogs I had been using for my research healed from surgeries with little evidence of infection," he recalls.
This led to a series of studies that revealed that there was a very powerful family of antibiotics in the skin of frogs that fended off infection. Zasloff named them "magainins," which derives from the Hebrew word for "shield."
Around 2002, the miraculous dolphin came into the picture.
He recounts that when he was giving a lecture at a marine biology institution in Scotland, he was told by a biologist that dolphins are often attacked by sharks and most of them survive, he recounts.
"This led to the question about how a mammal bitten by a shark can survive in an environment like the ocean, and why does it not bleed to death or get infected."
About seven months ago, Zasloff called upon Trevor Hassard, chief biologist at a dolphin discovery center in Australia, to help him piece together the clinical histories of two dolphins that he cared for. Using that information, along with published anecdotal reports, he proceeded with his research.
"When the dolphin sustains an injury, having a football-sized piece of tissue torn from its back, it is able to heal and return to its normal appearance and body contour in about a month," he details.
"A dolphin's diving reflex is instrumental in the healing because it stops the flow of blood to most of its body except its brain. This allows the dolphin to preserve the amount of oxygen that is in its bloodstream."
Upon further examination, Zasloff and his team found that the blubber that covers the dolphin plays a life-saving role; this fact, he says, offers a wealth of insight for humans if the intricate workings are properly examined.
Zasloff hypothesizes that many of the antibiotic substances (organohalogens) found in blubber are derived from the dolphin's food source of algae and plankton -- an observation that could eventually lead to more innovations in healing and infection-fighting on the human front.