Don Reed
3 min readMay 9, 2024

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OF SHARKS, AND LIVER DISEASE

By Don C. Reed

Her name was Vanessa; she was six years old, and fighting liver disease. To keep her alive, her family had to monitor every gram of food she ate. She would sometimes be so hungry, after having eaten her tiny meal, that she would ask to just smell someone else’s dinner…

It was agony for her family, having to deny her food, when she was so hungry. But if they let her eat like she wanted, it could send her to the hospital, or worse.

When her Mom found out that a liver transplant could change everything, the risks frightened her. But when she told her daughter, Vanessa burst into tears.

“Mom,” she said, “This is the happiest day of my life!”

At the age of ten, one smiling little girl had her first French fry.

Not every story has such a happy ending. Mary, my cousin Will’s beloved wife, recently passed away for lack of a liver to transplant.

Why doesn’t everybody just get a new liver, if they need one? Three reasons:

First, there is a permanent shortage of livers. Second, the replacement livers may be rejected by the recipient’s body. Third, the liver is a complicated organ, performing literally hundreds of subtle and different chores every day.

Dr. Holger Willenbring, M.D.. Ph.D., works at the Liver Center of UCSF. attempting to grow new liver cells — inside the patient. (1)

Because of such stem cell research, funded by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), it may become possible to save some of the two million children and adults who die every year of liver failure, around the world. (2) It is one more example of the urgency of stem cell research, which the Golden State in its wisdom supports.

(Note: CIRM was built and maintained by two citizen’s initiatives: Proposition 71 to start with, and Prop 14 to continue its funding. Citizens’ initiatives are strongly supported by one political party, and strongly opposed by the other. A wisely-designed initiative can be manna from Heaven; a badly made one can be a disaster. There is no substitute for careful study.)

But what does such research have to do with sharks? Roughly 1/3 of a shark’s bodyweight is the liver, a huge grey-pink object — so heavy with oil there was once a shark liver oil industry, for the vitamin D content. Even now, studying the shark’s fast-growing liver may help us duplicate its function.

As an aquarium diver for Marine World Africa USA in Redwood City, California, it was my privilege to swim with sharks almost every day, from 1972–86, and I still have all my limbs. I have enormous respect for the oceanic predators, which fortunately have little in common with their Hollywood cousins. By eating the sick fish, sharks prevent the spread of disease, and keep the ocean healthy.

Still, there are sharks, and sharks.

In another aquarium, which shall be nameless, a massive-bodied bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) was harassing the divers, becoming increasingly aggressive, and dangerous. Finally, on a day when the park was closed, a diver took a speargun and ended the problem.

The shark’s death was listed as “liver failure”, which was technically correct — that being the place where they shot the shark.

1. https://willenbringlab.ucsf.edu/lab-members/principal-investigators/holger-willenbring,-md,-phd.aspx

2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36990226/#:~:text=Abstract,related%20deaths%20occur%20in%20men.

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Don Reed

For 23 years, Don C. Reed has supported medical research, ever since his son Roman Reed was paralyzed in a college football accident.