The Angel of Venom: Dr. Angel Yanagihara

About a year and a half ago I accompanied Diana Nyad across the Florida Straits as a crew member on her famous swim from Cuba to Key West. What an adventure it was! I was assigned to the boat that housed the people who would protect Diana from the sharks, jellyfish and other sea creatures that might be encountered along the way.

Angel YanagaharaFirst on board were the shark divers. Four big fearless men who not only took their jobs very seriously but seemed to be genuinely excited about the possibility of encountering a monster during the trip. Next aboard was a diminutive woman with a sweet smile and a big floppy hat – and LOTS of baggage. With hard cases of every shape and size, she proceeded to clear the salon and set up computers, microscopes, cameras, lenses and a large supply of her sting -treatment formulations. This pretty, pleasant little woman was none other than the world’s leading expert on box jellyfish. Dr. Angel A. Yanagihara. A research professor at the Department of Tropical Medicine at the University of Hawaii. Her specialty—toxins and venoms.

Her job was to make sure the box jellyfish didn’t overcome Diana as she made her 4th attempt in 2012 and then again in 2013 during her 5th attempt when she succeeded in making history swimming the 110 miles from Cuba to Key West. – completely box jellyfish sting free.

Fast forward a year August 2014 and Angel was in Key West again. This time conducting studies contracted by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to research andwc-8253131498_5f5f8fe94a_o better understand what particular box jellyfish species are in this area, and to develop additional treatments for their stings which are severely debilitating and can be fatal.

You see, the Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School trains in Fleming Key Basin near Key West. They are the nation’s elite fighters trained in stealthy maritime infiltration techniques and they were getting stung. Incidents are rare, but it has become necessary for the safety of the soldiers to better understand them and to develop treatments to effectively treat the stings and the itchy aftermath.

My first question, “What about the recreational diver/snorkeler, why are we not seeing them?” Her answer is that there have been half a dozen serious recreational activity stings in recent years but box jellies are not generally in the area we frequent. Most species seem to be nocturnal. Many live in seagrass or mangrove roots and other species live in the open ocean. “The soldiers are often parachuting into sea grass bay habitats and conducting long underwater missions along the bottom at night when box jellyfish are feeding which makes them vulnerable to attack.” Angel says.

wc-8266873577_a6f425fddd_oAngel has developed a combined sting inhibitor/toxin treatment, that can be applied directly to the skin. One airman was going through an exercise on disentangling his parachute east of Fleming Key when he was stung. He was able to use the inhibitor effectively to treat his stings. This treatment is market ready and composed of FDA approved ingredients. Angel is working on developing additional treatments to address the sometimes weeks long itchy aftermath that the injected stinging cell barbs can cause.

She was in Key West for 3 weeks in August and then again in October collecting the animals around Key West and researching their field biology, stinging cell structures and the biochemistry of their venom. We had the chance to meet up recently and I even got to meet a box jelly – up close and personal.

So what exactly inspired Angel to specialize in box jellyfish, that was the million dollar question. She travels all over the world, diving for these creatures and collecting them for her research. Her current projects take her not only to Key West, but to Australia, Europe, Bonaire, Saipan and Puerto Rico.

Angel grew up in a military family. She went to 12 schools in 12 years and traveled all over the world. At last count I think she speaks five languages – one of which is Spanish which was invaluablewc-8267943120_75587f5c70_o to me last year during our night out together in Havana, Cuba – but that is a story for another time…

As it turns out, she became interested in science at an early age, went to college and became a biochemist. Her interest in jellyfish didn’t come about until she had a first hand experience of her own. She was swimming along the beach in Hawaii where she lives when she encountered box jellyfish. She almost didn’t make it back to shore. At that point, she recognized a problem that needed to be solved. She learned that Box Jellyfish, despite their notoriety, were a family of over 30 different species that seemed to be the topic of more questions than answers. She wrote her first grant proposal to study the Hawaiian Box Jelly in 1997.That success has led to an entire career focused on studying the different habitats of these species as well as cracking the mysteries of their venom and developing formulations to treat and protect people from its venomous sting. So now she travels the world, studying them in their habitat as well as collecting specimens to study their venoms in her lab and she has made remarkable progress.

What I really wanted to learn from this amazing woman however, was not so much about the jellyfish as it was about her. What advice did she have for the rest of us about blazing her own trail? Here is what she had to say…

wc-8267943432_dea6a00699_o“If you’re really serious about a goal, it’s important to understand that you have to pay your dues. Know going in that you are going to have to prepare yourself. Nothing replaces hard work. Take Diana Nyad for example who worked so tirelessly to get herself ready both physically and mentally for her swim from Cuba to Key West. She may have enjoyed swimming, and even had an aptitude for it; but without committing to a serious training regimen she would not have had what it would take to accomplish such a goal. Prepare yourself so that when you are tested, you will have the tools you need to succeed.

“Women tend to want to play it safe. This may have originally been because they had to take care of their families and needed to make safe choices instead of taking risks that might affect the others that depended on them.”

She went on to say that confidence is also important. Women seem almost hardwired to think of all the reasons why they can’t do something, why they aren’t good enough. Women would be well advised to take their cue from men, who appear to naturally have more confidence. Their attitude is usually “Yes I can do that. Try to stop me!”

The key is to pay your dues by getting yourself prepared. This will give you the confidence you need to push forward and go for what you want. Good advice.

 

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Click here to watch videos of Dr. Angel Yanagihara, including her TED Talk “Outside the Box” at http://youtu.be/3qwV_Wgym44
More information and photos of box jellyfish can be found on her site http://manoa-hawaii.academia.edu/AngelYanagihara

* If you have information or experiences about the box jellyfish in waters surrounding the Florida Keys, please contact her at ayanagih@hawaii.edu or angel99anne@yahoo.com or call 808 956-8328.

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Interesting fact about box jellyfish Interesting FactBox jellyfish have four eye stalks with 6 visual organs on each, or 24 “eyes”, altogether! There is one eye stalk at each corner of their cube-shaped bodies. Sixteen of these “eyes” are comprised of primitive cells detecting light and dark, but 8 of the 24 eyes are as complex as our own with a pupil, iris, cornea, lens and retina. They can rotate these eyes to see in any direction and use their vision to hunt prey. What makes this fact so amazing is that jellyfish do not have a “brain”. How they can process the information from these complex eyes is still a mystery.

 

As editor of Island Jane and FishMonster Magazines it is my job to bring you the very best of the Florida Keys. I am an avid diver, I love to kayak and paddleboard and I even like to fish a little bit 🙂 I love living in the Florida Keys and I hope I can share some of that with you.

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