The future of medicine may be training humans to be more like dolphins.

Dolphins have protective proteins that researcher Michael Janech, from the Medical University of South Carolina, believes can teach doctors how to treat diseases associated with aging.

When a human has a heart attack, stroke or similar health event, oxygen is cut off from vital organs — known as hypoxia — and that leads to tissue damage. Meanwhile, dolphins can dive for up to 90 minutes, during which time their bodies divert more oxygen to the brain and deprive their other organs of the gas, yet the mammals come out unscathed.

The university said Janech worked with others to study the proteins present in aging bottlenose dolphins, which have genetic similarities to humans. They found five significant proteins that were much more prevalent in the dolphins than in humans. One of them, vanin-1, makes vitamin B5, “and in doing so it releases an antioxidant that has been shown to protect tissues from injury like that which occurs after the hypoxia and reoxygenation of diving and resurfacing.”

Janech and his team are now studying whether that information could help doctors protect humans from hypoxia-caused damage, specifically in the kidneys.

An article published in Clinical Medicine & Research earlier this year described a link between chronic renal tissue hypoxia and organ failure, and noted a steady increase in cases of end-stage renal disease and the growing population of retirement-age Americans — who are more likely to succumb to the illness. “The already heavy burden imposed ... on the U.S. health care system is set to increase dramatically,” that article said.

The Medical University of South Carolina said researchers are now gathering more samples from both marine mammals and land mammals.

“Proteins are the workhorses of the genes. It is how the gene provides function to the cell,” Janech said in the university statement about why he believes studying the dolphin’s antioxidant proteins will give him clues on how to treat humans. “We wanted to ask what's different in an animal that can do something that would hurt a human, and they do this every single day. And can we take it back to human medicine?”

Sources: Janech MG, Sobolesky P, Parry C, Boxall B, Wells R and Venn-Watson S. Proteomic Analysis of Non-depleted Serum Proteins from Bottlenose Dolphins Uncovers a High Vanin-1 Phenotype. Scientific Reports. 2016.

Shelley CS, Fu Q and Colgan SP. Hypoxia: The Force that Drives Chronic Kidney Disease. Clinical Medicine & Research. 2016.