This Breton startup, Hemarina, has developed a molecule derived from a marine worm to transport oxygen in the blood. For Dr. Franck Zal, who made this discovery, it is a "molecular respirator" that could replace the artificial respirators that are sorely needed to treat Covid-19 patients. Proof of the urgency, the National Health Agency gave its authorization within 48 hours for two Parisian hospitals to launch the first tests without delay.
The product developed by the biopharmaceutical laboratory Hemarina in Morlaix uses the astonishing properties of a small marine worm, which is found in the sand of all beaches. The haemoglobin of this beast, the arenicole, has the capacity to transport unequalled quantities of oxygen to organs and tissues.
The extraordinary virtues of the arena
This marine worm capable of performing miracles in terms of oxygenation has already been used successfully in the field of transplants. Professor Lantieri, famous for having carried out the world's first total face transplant in 2010, has already used the virtues of this worm. He is full of praise and says that Dr. Zal's discovery is " as important as penicillin. ». He goes on to explain that after using Hemarina's molecule to preserve a graft, the results were so spectacular that he no longer considers any graft without it. « It's as if the graft hadn't come out of the donor, as if there had only been a few minutes without oxygen. It was absolutely extraordinary ".
For Professor Lantieri, there is no doubt that the use of the properties of this marine worm could oxygenate patients with acute respiratory syndrome due to Covid-19. This molecule would make it possible to avoid the use of respirators, which are currently sorely lacking in all the hospitals in the world faced with the waves of the epidemic. He says: "Covid-19 Maybe not all the time, but a few hours, and those few hours or days save us time. And time is extremely important in this battle... ".
About a hundred doses of this molecule were rushed to two Parisian hospitals: the Georges Pompidou Hospital and the Pitié-Salpêtrière. They were injected intravenously into 10 patients who had been suffering from respiratory insufficiency since yesterday, Tuesday 31 March.
Dr. Zal's bioinspiration
So, Frank Zal, future Nobel Prize winner? Franck Zal's discovery concerns the arénicole, which is very well known to biologists, while he was still working at the CNRS in 2007. Observing these worms on the beaches of his Brittany, the researcher is intrigued by the ability of these organisms to "breathe" between two tides. He realizes that these worms have the ability to transport oxygen in quantity in their blood, which gives them considerable autonomy. He then discovered that these arelets have a molecule that acts as an oxygen carrier, a function that is normally performed by the hemoglobins in red blood cells. The blood of this worm has very valuable properties: on the one hand, arenicole haemoglobin is universally transfusable and, since it is not carried by red blood cells, it can be lyophilized; on the other hand, it is fifty times more oxygenating than human haemoglobin.
Why not enjoy unlimited reading of UP'? Subscribe from €1.90 per week.
By observing nature and drawing inspiration from it, Dr. Zal made a considerable discovery. UP' had questioned the doctor during meetings on biomimicry. He explained his work:
The potential application of this discovery is immense, and one of them consists, as Professor Lantieri did, in oxygenating the organs to be transplanted. During a transplant, the surgeon's first enemy is hypoxia (suffocation) of the graft; hundreds of organs are thus lost throughout the world due to a lack of hemoglobin that is efficient enough to preserve them and almost 20,000 French people wait for a transplant every year. The reduced size of the molecule is 250 times smaller than a red blood cell, allowing it to circulate and deliver oxygen to areas where circulation is reduced by trauma such as cerebral oedema, but also to oxygenate people suffering from haemorrhages. In addition, because the molecule is not surrounded by any cells - which attribute rhesus and blood group, among other things - it is universal.
Dr. Zal's team, based in Morlaix, in northern Finistère, has already worked on several different uses of the molecule from the sea worm: a system for oxygenating grafts before transplants, a blood substitute, particularly for treating emergency strokes, and a dressing that speeds healing, especially for people with diabetes.
The Breton SME Hemarina has a portfolio of 18 international patents and has opened a subsidiary in Boston, as well as a marine worm production farm in Noirmoutier.
By participating in the fight against Covid-19, Dr. Zal's team brings hope to many patients and doctors. « The aim is to use this molecule as a kind of molecular ventilator before patients go into a heavy resuscitation process. ", Franck Zal points out, recalling the current lack of artificial respirators. His company is self-sufficient since it has its own marine worm farm; it has 5,000 doses ready to be used and could produce 15,000 more "fairly quickly".