MIAMI – (CBS4) – As a top marine researcher, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, scours the oceans in search of sharks.
On a recent afternoon aboard a research boat, Hammerschlag and his team from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, found what they refer to as an "amazing" creature.
"Any day that you can see a shark is an amazing day," Hammerschlag said. "Sharks are in a lot of trouble. They need all the help they can get."
Hammerschlag studies the mythical sea creatures to discover how their ailments could be linked to the development of human diseases.
"The shark is sending us an SOS," he said as he traveled on a boat with his research team. "I'm attempting to draw blood."
It's an SOS about a health threat that not only affects sharks, but also affects man. His team has found links between the sharks and diseases that cripple and kill humans.
"Toxins that can give you Alzheimer's, dementia, ALS, Parkinson's. Pretty scary stuff," Hammerschlag said.
Back on land, his partner Dr. Deborah Mash, a professor of Neurology for the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, studies his findings inside a lab.
"This is a first. No one has seen this data," Mash said.
"Is there a footprint suggesting an SOS from the shark?" CBS4's Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen asked.
"There is," Mash said. "He is an apex predator, as we are. He is going to mirror what we are doing to our bodies. The shark is giving us a mirror on what is coming into our diet. Showing us what is out there in our marine environment that can damage out bodies."
The journey for answers begins with a dizzying display of precision, which begins with the intubation of the shark so that oxygenated water pours through its gills. Then, the sharks are examined, biopsied, blown on and electronically tagged.
For scientists and students, this is a key moment -- not only tagging the shark but evaluating the blood and stress levels of the shark, for research the world awaits.
What they found in the shark fin? The neurotoxin BMAA (short for B-Methylamino-L-alanine), which is produced by an algae known as cyanobacteria, often found in lakes, oceans and the soil.
"We were really surprised at the level of detection of this toxin BMAA in the shark fins," Mash said.
The team examined 100 samples from seven shark species.
"We found it in all but three samples that we tested. I never expected that. That means that it is very prevalent in the shark diet," Mash said. "The results are staggering. I never predicted that we would see the incidence of this toxin in the large number of shark samples off the South Florida coastal waters."
When asked why this toxin is so dangerous, Mash said, "This toxin has been shown to damage neurons. Neurons are the primary building block of the brain."
The toxin, which has been shown to kill brain cells, has turned up - repeatedly - in Mash's studies of the human brain -- particularly of the brains of victims of Alzheimer's, Parkinson and Lou Gehrig's patients.
"We are detecting BMAA in the brains of the patients that have donated them for research," Mash said. "That is why we are seeing linkage with Alzheimer's and with Lou Gehrig's disease."
If the shark holds clues to brain-based diseases that have the potential to affect everybody -- it's even more chilling that the shark is threatened today because of a demand for soup made from its fin.
"100 million sharks are killed a year," Hammerschlag said. "A rate of 270,000 sharks per day mostly to make shark fin soup."
The soup is considered a delicacy and sign of prosperity in Asian cultures. But South Florida's team of scientific detectives are just publishing their work that suggests consumers might want to think twice before biting into a food that tradition says will bring them luck.
"If you consume shark fin products or you use this in your diet, yes, you are going to be exposed to increasing amounts of BMAA's," Mash said. "With repeat exposure throughout the life span, it could put someone at risk for a brain disorder like Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease."
All this is the first chapter of a medical mission aimed at unearthing clues that link man - the oceans top predator - and our survival.
"This is all about human health and this is all about the risk to human health," Mash said. "And the shark may give us the fundamental clue that allows us to make a great breakthrough."
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