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two women at microphone
From left, Diana Nyad and Angel Yanagihara.

A 2023 Hollywood film Nyad takes viewers on a journey alongside Diana Nyad in her five attempts at a historic 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida. Annette Bening was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Nyad in the movie that also starred Jodie Foster. Nyad’s inspiring true story was made possible, in part, by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa research associate professor Angel Yanagihara.

film cover
2023 Hollywood film Nyad.

Yanagihara, who is with the Pacific Biosciences Research Center and John A. Burns School of Medicine Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology, played a key role in developing topical technologies (for which she is sole inventor, US Patent #10,172,883) including a cream that prevents box jellyfish stings, a life threatening hurdle Nyad had to face to complete her record breaking swim.

Nyad contacted Yanagihara in March 2012 after she was severely stung by box jellies during her third attempt to complete the swim. She found Yanagihara’s name while searching the internet for people who had anything to do with box jellies.

“I received an email out of the blue with 40 detailed questions,” said Yanagihara. “I looked her up and saw that she had a TED talk and I listened to that and I was immediately smitten by this person and how much discipline she brought to her athleticism and her goal.”

Yanagihara’s own experience with a box jellyfish sting at Kaimana Beach in 1997 that required emergency care. That spurred her research after she discovered no one had studied the venom’s biochemistry. Nyad’s team sought Yanagihara’s expertise and wanted her to accompany Nyad on her next swim attempts.

“They insisted that they absolutely needed me to be on this swim in person,” Yanagihara said. “I realized if I didn’t go, she might very well die because of the lack of general understanding of this venom including the mistaken care that previous folks had given her by injecting her with epinephrine on her last attempt.”

Testing out the cream on herself

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At the time, Yanagihara’s research had focused on developing treatments for combat divers and special forces personnel affected by jellyfish stings. However, Nyad sought a preventative solution. Yanagihara conducted various tests on the discharge mechanism of box jellyfish tentacles and found a working combination, which she then compounded into anhydrous lanolin used by long-distance ocean swimmers to prevent chapping.

“After exhaustive in vitro testing, I found a combination that did work,” Yanagihara said. “I went out swimming by myself with it on and then I laid a live box jellyfish on my own skin and it worked!”

Yanagihara’s contribution to Nyad’s swim emphasizes the role of research and collaboration in pushing the boundaries of human achievement.

“It’s very important to highlight that there are highly innovative approaches at the University of Hawaiʻi,” said Yanagihara. “This work was initially solely supported by the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation. I would like to see novel funding mechanisms at UH to foster a more innovative ecosystem.”

Yanagihara’s character was also cast in the film Nyad and was portrayed by actress Jeena Li.

“While it was fun to be included in name, the Hollywood version of my role was almost unrecognizable. My actual research was not included. I was in the water as a free diver from dusk to dawn, the actress appears to only have been in the water once,” said Yanagihara on being played by Li in the film.

two people holding each other
From left, Angel Yanagihara and Diana Nyad.
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