The Spa Spy blog

From ancient thalassotherapy to cutting-edge technology

For thousands of years, "to spa" meant bathing in water, either from a local hot spring, or in the sea. People have known about the health-improving properties of seawater and seaweed for so long that we invented a word for it: thalassotherapy from the Greek word for "sea". Stands to reason, then, that when The Good Spa Guide heard that researchers at Biocare Marine -- a cross-border research project -- were giving a talk at the SeaLife Centre in Brighton yesterday, off we sailed. We wanted to learn what was new in the world of thalassotherapy. (Oh, and we wanted to see the fish).

The dramatic, Victorian Sea Life Centre: the venue for the event It was a fascinating evening. We all know that some infections are becoming resistant to our current antibiotics. One of the main scientific objectives of Biocare Marine is to find potential new antibiotics. Marine organisms produce poisons to help them survive; for example, perhaps to oust a competitor from a prime piece of submarine rock real estate. A marine molecule may provide the magic we need to conquer MRSA.

Another aim of Biocare Marine is to improve techniques for the reconstruction of skin. Our skin, our largest organ, is fragile. If it sustains severe damage, it cannot heal itself. You need a skin graft and reconstructive surgery. We were surprised to learn that, today, medical staff generally use the same techniques to reduce scarring after injury or surgery as they have done since medieval times. Many of these techniques will be familiar to any regular spa-goer. They include massage of the affected area, the use of devices such as Derma-Rollers, or simply showering the skin with seawater.

Petri dish of agarose cryogel 

Now, scientists are scouring the sea for better skin solutions. From marine molecules, biologists can construct cryogel lattices. If you have a burn or an injury, a lattice is "seeded" with cells cultivated from your own skin. Doctors put these "skin scaffolds" in wounds to repair skin tissue, in dents to restore your skin's shape, and in burns to prevent the formation of scar tissue. If you've been injured or had surgery, the subsequent scars and disfigurement can have a huge psychological and social impact on your life. The ground-breaking work of organisations such as BioCare Marine and the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation is helping people with burns and scalds heal more quickly -- and without the scars that were inevitable until this century.

It's not every scientific symposium where your main speaker is at risk of being upstaged by a giant turtle, but ours was when the audience trooped up to the shark tank for a short talk on polymers. The giant turtle definitely thought we had arrived to see him and performed most balletically. (Unfortunately, too dark up there to take a picture.)

Blue sea anenomes

New miracles and medicines can come from marine life. New healthcare uses for marine ingredients and making a difference to people's lives? Yes, at The Good Spa Guide we're behind both of those ideas. As the ancient Greeks would say, "Long live thalassotherapy!"