Periodically, we publish essays from Professor Andrew Lyon‘s Honors 389 course “The Science Blender”, which is the basis for Schmid College’s Grand Challenges Initiative. In HON 389, students are  asked to reflect on different aspects of tackling a grand challenge. In this essay, student’s were asked to research and analyze an interdisciplinary breakthrough of their choosing. 

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, summertime was the best time of year. The snow had cleared from the crevices in each sidewalk square, which now posed as a habitat for purple and pink chalk; I recall spending countless days wasting the time that I considered so sacred. Oftentimes summer progressed into a series of tedious events frequently beginning and ending in the same place: the couch. But, fortunately, there was one week during the month of June that allowed me to stay in my sedentary state of body and mind. It was shark week.

We have grown up with the credence that sharks are the enemy. Jaws in 1975 sparked the paranoia on beaches everywhere and gave sharks a bad reputation, which infamously continued in shark week and other media-based influences. Sharks seem to be the most and least understood creature studied in marine science, which can yield consequences that may put the species at risk. However, scientific advancements have allowed us to comprehend this creature at great lengths and study the anatomy of the world-famous Jaws and his counterparts. This evolution of science is what gave Discovery Channel the ability to entertain my middle school self. This research, on a greater (more important) scale, associates with the current innovations and trials concerning cancer research and how to effectively treat the disease.

It is known that sharks’ skeletons are not made of bone, rather, they are made of cartilage. According to the Museum of Natural Science and Industry the cartilage from a shark has antiangiogenic properties, which inhibit the growth of a tumor’s blood vessels that are vital to the growth of the cancerous cells. Sources say that this claim is based off of “scant clinical evidence.”[1] From this scant evidence arose a prominent scientific myth that sharks are immune to cancer, and can in fact aid in the efforts to cure it. Although the occurrence of cancer in animals with cartilage skeletons is very low, cancer does appear in forms popularly called chondromas (cancer of the cartilage).

The supposed “breakthrough” of shark cancer resistance has heightened curiosity in the medical field, launching a falsified rumor that pills filled with cartilage powder from a shark will treat, and possibly cure, a cancer patient. The false pretense that this pill will cure their illness causes cancer stricken individuals to purchase this pill, fueling the demand for something that just won’t work. It is said that millions of sharks are killed each year under the hand of the industry for shark pills, which proves to be ecologically damaging. Populations of sharks in North America have decreased by nearly 80 percent, according to Scientific American.[2] This overfishing tragedy is putting sharks at risk of extinction if this untrue belief continues amongst members of the cancer treatment community.

To further strengthen the argument that sharks do in fact get cancer, it is said by Live Science that a great white shark found off the coast of Australia has a 1-foot by 1-foot-wide tumor. Similarly, a mass was also discovered on the head of a bronze whaler shark.[3] Thus, contrary to the popular belief that sharks are exempt from the consequences of cancer, there are new documented tumors in shark species that have not been found until now. Though it is scientific advancements that create these costly myths, it is also progressions and expanded knowledge that we use to debunk such myths.

[1] “Shark & Ray Myths.” Shark & Ray Myths. N.p., 2001. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.

[2] Wilcox, Christie. “Mythbusting 101: Sharks Will Cure Cancer.” Scientific American Blog Network. N.p., 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.

[3] Main, Douglas. “Sharks Do Get Cancer: Tumor Found in Great White.” Live Science. N.p., 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.