An inhaler that protects the lungs against air pollution has been developed by scientists and could help the many millions of people affected by toxic air to avoid its worst effects. The inhaler delivers a molecule, first found in bacteria in the Egyptian desert, which stabilises water on the surface of the lung cells to form a protective layer. It is expected to be available as an inexpensive, over-the-counter product...based on a molecule called ectoine, discovered in the 1980s in a desert bacterium which uses the compound to conserve water in 60C heat. “It is quite an inert molecule that does one main thing, which is bind water, which stabilises cell membrane tissues against physical or chemical damage ... It supports the natural barrier.” When inhaled, this helps prevent the damage caused by air pollution particles that can lead to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer ... Ectoine does not interact with cell receptors, so it is classed as a medical device rather than a drug. This means large clinical trials are not required for official approval ... “It could potentially do so much more. It is actually quite exciting and there is clearly a lot more to come from this story.”Neat, eh? And echoes of penicillin: discovered decades before anyone figures out how to do something useful with it. There's something wonderfully random about when discoveries are made and, in parallel, when actual inventions are perfected and realised. It certainly doesn't always happen in a logical sequence of search - discovery - deliberation - application - invention - product, as naive accounts sometimes suggest. (The actual, functioning steam engine disproved the 'science' of the time.) I always think television was an invention rather ahead of its time. Then again, there are things that should have been invented already ...
I reckon this marvellous ectoine thingy / discovery / application illustrates a number of maxims that I carry around with me:
- there's always more stuff out there than anyone realises; ('if in doubt, go short')
- technology solves problems (to give another example: geo-engineering is a whole lot better for tackling GW than banning travel or electricity or keeping warm in winter);
- the next generation always has more resources than its forefathers; (which is not the same as life necessarily getting better - our perennial C@W debate)
- there are sometimes step-change improvements that completely transform a situation - progress doesn't move in straight lines, it behaves more like the long-jump record (see also the 'phoenix phenomenon');
- the latency period for effectively harnessing something new can be surprisingly long (and I don't think we've done much more than scratch the surface as regards microprocessors / digitisation / www etc)
- synthetic blood - this is so obvious and so slow in coming: I can scarcely believe it still hasn't happened
- corbynite, a mysterious substance that will finally account for the folly of socialism, in every sense of 'account for'