The Humble Beginnings of 5 Big Ideas

Where we see tangled headphones, annoying insects, and painful bandages, these scientists saw the beginnings of world-changing medical advances.

From Mental Floss
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine November 2013

Smeared sunscreen

Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

CORAL…might help stop world hunger.

Slathering on sunscreen is nobody’s idea of a day at the beach, but it’s worth doing. More than 3,000 Americans die of nonmelanoma skin cancers each year, and up to 90 percent of cases are tied to ultraviolet light exposure. While most of us know how to apply sunscreen, we don’t always do a good job. The FDA recommends applying a shot glass’s worth of sunscreen—at least every two hours.

Paul Long, a pharmaceutical expert at King’s College London, wants to solve the problem with a long-lasting sunscreen pill. To vanquish those streaky creams and greasy sprays, Long has found an unlikely ally in coral. It turns out coral is more than just snorkeling scenery. It’s also a compact marine animal that can do what tanning addicts cannot: endure blistering UV rays without negative health effects. The secret, Long says, lies in algae that live within the coral and trigger reefs into producing their own sunscreen. But this compound doesn’t just protect the coral colonies. When fish feast on the reef, the UV-blocking compounds get passed up the food chain.

So how likely is it that a compound that works for fish will work for humans as well? “It’s absolutely conceivable,” Long says. “If our studies confirm the results we are expecting, we will be able to develop a sunscreen [tablet] with the broadest spectrum of protection.”

Long’s team is closer than you think. By copying coral’s genetic code and inserting it into bacteria in the lab, Long has manufactured large quantities of amino acids with magical sun-blocking powers. A pharmaceutical deal is currently being negotiated to bring the sunscreen pill to market, and it could happen in time for your 2016 summer vacation.

Long believes the compound could also have broader (and more surprising) applications, including helping to feed the world. Theoretically, the amino acids could be used to protect crops planted in sun-drenched regions where intense sunlight makes farming difficult. But the first step is making swimming more pleasant—no more getting out of the water every two hours to grease up. —Katherine Laidlaw

Next: The gecko might help newborns heal quicker »

Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

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