The healing power of the sea has been known for centuries. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks investigated the effects of seawater on human health, crediting it with healing powers. As early as the 14th century Eastern cultures recognized the medical properties of organisms found in coral reefs. During medieval times in Europe sea bathing was thought to have curative or therapeutic value. Marine bioresources have been part of folk medicines used for centuries by indigenous cultures. Yet most of our present day medicines come from plants, animals or microbes. Today, scientists are saying the oceans could hold the key to finding the next generation of life saving drugs and a sponge discovered in 2005 may be the latest discovery.
In 2005, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries set out on a mission to study bottom-dwelling sea life and habitats supporting Alaska’s $1.8 billion fishing industry. Bob Stone, a NOAA biologist, was working on an ocean floor survey of coral habitat in a submersible when he discovered the green Latrunculia austini sponge. The sponge is golf ball sized, dotted with craters and pitted by deep holes. It lives on rocks in patches at depths of 230-720 feet and is difficult to collect because they stick firmly to rocky surfaces. “You’d never look at this sponge and think this is a miracle sponge, but it could be,” said Bob Stone. His discovery led to a special collaboration.
Biomedical researcher Mark Hamann, of the Medical University of South Carolina and his team determined that sponge “covers unique and unprecedented chemical space. The structures of the molecules are not related to anything you would find on land or even in tropical shallow water marine environments.”
Fred Valeriote, senior researcher with the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, received samples of the molecules from Hamann. They exposed the pancreatic cell line to a sample from the green sponge extract. The lab test revealed that the green sponge extract, discovered over a decade ago, had anti-cancer activity, or the ability to kill pancreatic cancer cells. “Given the lack of current effective drug treatments available for pancreatic cancer, this study finding offers hope for the future of cancer care.”
Researchers hope to secure additional federal funding to further their studies of the sponge, and to help them create a synthetic version of the molecule. Clinical trials are about six years away.
The oceans cover more than two thirds of Earth’s surface but 95 percent of the ocean has yet to be explored. However, with advances in technology we now have the underwater technology to explore the seas and oceans and the means to undertake DNA sequencing to analyze its life. With these advances we have seen a rapid increase in marine bioprospecting and blue biotechnology. The Global Ocean Commission defines marine bioprospecting as “the search for novel compounds from natural sources in the marine environment.” Blue biotechnology is concerned with the application of molecular biological methods to marine and freshwater organisms.
With these advances come concerns that without regulation fragile habitats could be damaged beyond repair. Overuse, sustainability and the legal right to use waters not covered by treaties are also cited. Despite those concerns drugs from the ocean are one of the most promising directions of science today as it becomes the biological focus for discovering 21st century medicines.
Photo courtesy of Learnz.org