Thursday, 13 February, 2020

A smart plaster to treat coral

The Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in collaboration with the MaRHE Center (Marine Research and High Education Center in the Maldives) at the University of Milano-Bicocca has recently published in Scientific Reports, an international journal in the Nature group, a study on the development and application of smart plasters to treat coral suffering from bacterial, viral or fungal infections caused by pollution, climate change and human activities.

Coral reefs are a key habitat for the marine ecosystem and the destruction of these environments due to pollution, climate change and other human activities could have serious global consequences. In the last 50 years this ecosystem has been reduced by 50%. One of the main causes of this decline are diseases caused by several pathogenic microorganisms. Over 40 diseases can cause the death of these animals and to date there are no effective treatments to prevent or cure them, seriously endangering the survival of these habitats and their associated exceptional biodiversity.

For this study, corals belonging to the Acropora muricata species were used, reef-building corals typical of tropical seas, which are listed as endangered species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). As a result of natural or anthropogenic stress, these organisms can be damaged, increasing the risk of direct contagion with dangerous microorganisms such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi and viruses, which are responsible for the onset of specific potentially fatal diseases.

The researchers have developed a treatment with smart, fully biocompatible and biodegradable plasters for application on coral “wounds”, which release active ingredients (e.g. antibiotics and antioxidants) in a controlled way and enable them to stick to the coral, healing it. The treatment involves applying a first plaster that releases medication directly into the coral wound, preventing the coral from dispersing into the environment, and then sealing the damaged part of the organism with a second plaster to stop the potential entry of further pathogens.

“This research marks a breakthrough in the study and treatment of coral diseases. To date, in order to limit the impact of these diseases, the most commonly used technique is total or partial removal of the colony, resulting in further damage to coral communities. Thanks to this study, diseased coral can be directly treated on site, enabling more effective conservation of one of the most beautiful natural ecosystems on our planet,” comments Simone Montano, researcher at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DISAT) and the MaRHE center at the University of Milano-Bicocca.
The smart plaster, a project developed by IIT’s Smart Materials team, based on technologies designed for treating wounds in hospitals, has proven to be an effective method both on a medium-small scale – in aquariums – and potentially on a large scale – in the natural environment. The plaster’s healing effect was tested for 10 days in a laboratory environment and then for a period of 4 months in the sea.

“The treatment will make it possible to load specific medications in the first plaster depending on the type of infection, from anti-bacterial to anti-protozoa and anti-fungal, in order to create a targeted treatment for specific coral infections,” explains Marco Contardi, a researcher in the IIT Smart Materials team and the study’s first author.

The results of this study suggest, for the first time, a technique for the treatment and recovery of delicate organisms such as coral, however this technology would also be applicable to many other marine species subject to damage caused by human activities. The research teams’ next steps will focus on methods of applying smart plasters in nature and on a large scale, while in the short term this therapeutic approach could already be used in aquariology.