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Overview from TED

Drug-resistant bacteria have us on the brink of a serious global health crisis. What if sharks - creatures we see as a threat to life - could help fix it?

Microbiologist Ethan Mann explains how the unusual qualities of shark skin could lead to a new generation of medical devices that reduce bacterial infection.

"Bacteria and germs, they evolve so much more quickly than we could innovate ways to kill them. It's clear the antimicrobial era is coming to an end, so we have to think about this in a whole new way."

White Brick Wall
Ethan Mann

Microbiology Maverick

Dr. Ethan Mann is the Vice President of Sharklet Technologies, Inc., an innovative surface technology company based in Aurora, Colorado. Ethan has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. He trained as a post-doctoral fellow in infectious disease at the Ohio State University. He serves on NIH review panels to evaluate small business innovation research grants.



Another topic from my InterpreTED series - Tiny Robots with Giant Potential - centred around nanotechnology. I expressed awe at how science and technology seek to replicate nature; taking cues from the natural world for the betterment of our civilisation in areas such as healthcare, communications and travel.

This TED Talk is on a similar theme. Although instead of replicating rotifers (microscopic, aquatic invertebrates), Ethan Mann and his team had set their sights on a much bigger beast: sharks.

On watching the presentation, Mann and his colleagues at Sharklet Technologies are clearly on to something special. Whilst their jaw-dropping innovation – replicating the texture of shark skin on medical devices to prevent infections – sounds wonderfully simplistic on the surface, there is undoubtedly some seriously complex science at play.

Many of the world’s greatest – and most utilised – inventions seem so obvious to us now. Those square wheels aren’t doing the trick, have you thought about circular ones? And how about we bend a thin piece of steel wire to hold sheets of paper together?

Altering the texture of medical equipment to create an inhospitable surface for bacteria – should it prove to be successful – will surely be placed in the “obvious” category in years to come. Why did we ever do things differently? It makes so much sense!

Not convinced? Watch the video and see for yourself how sharks could inspire a new generation of medical devices.


Their potentially game-changing discovery resulted from an initiative to reduce “fouling” of the US Navy’s fleet. Thankfully Mann explains the issue for those non-seafaring folk among us:

"Fouling is when things like algae and barnacles and other marine materials get stuck to the sides of ships and submarines. [They] used to be able to prevent this fouling by coating ships and submarines with toxic agents, like heavy metals, but these heavy metals aren't as effective at keeping ships clean as they used to be. And we want clean ships because fouling on these vessels actually makes them less efficient in the water and can be easier for enemies to detect."

Mann’s colleague, Dr Anthony Brennan, was drafted in to devise a solution. Initially focussing on how surface roughness can prevent the attachment of organisms like algae, Brennan’s progress was slow. That is, until, he noticed something peculiar about sharks... In contrast to other marine life such as manatees and whales, sharks are squeaky clean! Brennan set about his mission to find out why.

His tale of discovery could be lifted straight from the pages of a sci-fi novel. Doctor makes startling discovery. Doctor engineers new generation of medical devices. Doctor saves humankind. Sure, it sounds far-fetched now but it may – in time - prove to be a reality.

Mann poses the exciting possibility for this to help tackle one of our biggest public health challenges - the growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics due to antimicrobial resistance. This is something which Pfizer has been raising awareness of and helping to lead the conversation on. In 2016, a UK government commissioned review warned that antimicrobial resistance could lead to 10 million deaths per year by 2050.

Mann says:

"It used to be we just used antibiotics to treat these types of infections. Antibiotics were an amazing drug - for a while. But eventually, bacteria were exposed to antibiotics so frequently they were forced to adapt. And survival is the key driver of evolution, and that's what we're talking about here: bacterial evolution.

"Perhaps you've heard about this in the news. It's referred to as 'Antimicrobial Resistance.' The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call antimicrobial resistance one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. Illnesses that were once easily treatable are now untreatable. In the US alone every year, more than two million people will get an antibiotic resistant infection, and over 23,000 people will die as a result of that infection."

He continues:

"The pharmaceutical industry is rushing to develop more and more and more antimicrobials, desperately trying to outpace antimicrobial resistance. But bacteria and germs, they evolve so much more quickly than we could innovate ways to kill them. It's clear the antimicrobial era is coming to an end, so we have to think about this in a whole new way."


The “whole new way” that Mann refers to could turn the medical industry on its head. Instead of trying to tackle and treat infections once they take hold, they plan to prevent them in the first place.

Sharklet Technologies first commercial device was a urological catheter, which doctors began using on patients in 2018, but they have plans to design more than just bacteria-proof medical devices. Mann states:

"We can prevent other medical complications through understanding the power of surface energy, things like frequent clogging, excessive blood clotting or poor healing interactions. The next generation of medical device surfaces inspired by the skin of sharks will actually expand how medical devices are made.

"Really the core issue is that we create all types of sophisticated medical devices, things to pump fluid into our blood, keep our heart beating on pace, or even stimulate brain activity. But bad things happen when these devices don't interact well with our bodies' natural mechanisms. We've actually discovered that we can improve how medical devices are tolerated through subtly tuning the surface energy characteristics."

Their plan of action underlines the importance of challenging conventional methods to create a better future.

Traditional medical equipment is made in a certain way because materials are affordable, easily accessible, and come with minimal (or should I say “manageable”) risks attached. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way – just that no one has thought of a better alternative. Yet.

Brennan, Mann and Co. plan to tackle the root cause of the problem – focusing on preventing the cut rather than stemming the bleeding. But they’re not the only ones taking inspiration from sharks.

In February 2019, BBC News reported that shark DNA could help cure cancer and age-related illnesses in humans.

Research carried out by a team of scientists at the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Centre at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, uncovered mutations in the DNA of Great White Sharks that protect them from the certain illnesses. The article explains:

"Unstable genes in humans are what make us vulnerable to aged-related diseases such as cancer. Because sharks have been around and at the top of their game for so long, they have evolved so their DNA can repair itself and is more tolerant to damage…

"… Shark DNA is one-and-a-half times bigger than human DNA, meaning there are things coded into the animals that, at the moment, humans can't do. And scientists hope to unlock those secrets and use them to treat the problems that DNA is already solving in sharks.

"They believe sharks could also help wound-healing and blood-clotting, because of their ability to recover quickly from serious injuries."

What’s more, a National Geographic article published in 2011 highlighted the potential of a cholesterol-like compound found in dogfish sharks' tissue to combat several viruses that cause hard-to-treat human diseases, such as dengue fever and hepatitis. As of 2018, the compound – called “squalamine” – had not succeeded in Phase III trials for any use.

Despite such setbacks, humans can clearly learn a lot from sharks. From healing wounds to treating Alzheimer’s and fibrosis, the genetic make-up of sharks continues to make waves in the healthcare industry, and it’s surely only a matter of time before mainstream medical practices change as a result.

In the meantime, here’s to a fascinatingly futuristic discovery from the team at Sharklet Technologies – one that has been millions of years in the making…

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