News / Science & Technology

Scientists Say World's Oceans Hold Great Medical Promise

Fish swim around a deep coral reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.Fish swim around a deep coral reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
x
Fish swim around a deep coral reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Fish swim around a deep coral reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
TEXT SIZE - +
Humans have turned to nature for medicines since ancient times. And modern scientists have searched the world’s rainforests for new medicinal compounds. The earth’s oceans may be an even better source, though, and at least 26 drugs that come from marine organisms are currently on the market or in development. A generation of innovative chemists hopes to boost this number.

Hunter College chemist Mande Holford has an unusual partner in her hunt for new medicines: a fierce marine snail that eats fish. Her study of the creature, she said, is not entirely scientific.

“I fell in love with snails because their shells are gorgeous,” said Holford.

Their tongue-like proboscides, on the other hand, are deadly. They inject prey with venom that’s made of poisonous chains of amino acids, called peptides.

“I like to say that the snails produce a cluster bomb. Inside [their] venom, you have between 50 to 250 peptides," said Holford. "All target something major in the nervous system. One thing that they hit is a pain signal. When they silence the pain signal, the prey doesn’t go into fight or flight mode.”

Marine research yields major medicines

So the fish stays calmer than it naturally would, even as it’s being eaten. Chemists already have had one major success repurposing the snail’s peptides - a drug called Prialt eases pain for HIV and cancer patients.

“On your neurons, you have these 'gates' that allow things to pass from one side to the other. The gate that controls chronic pain, they’ve found a way to shut it down using one of the peptides,” said Holford.

Holford may have been drawn to study snails by their beauty. She represents a broader trend, however, toward marine research.

“We’ve found some absolutely fascinating chemistry,” said David Newman, who directs the Natural Products Branch of the U.S. National Cancer Institute. After years of collecting organisms on land, his team now collects only marine life, like sponges or corals. He explains that because these organisms can’t move, they rely on chemical warfare.
 
“I have been known to say that weapons of mass destruction are alive and well on the coral reef, if you happen to be a fellow sponge who’s trying to encroach, or you’re a starfish that’s trying to eat the sponge. These are extremely toxic agents because of the dilution effect of seawater,” said Newman.

For an organization looking to kill cancerous cells, such potent chemicals are an attractive weapon.

Deep ocean mud loaded with cells

And far below coral reefs, some nine kilometers deep, lies what may be an even more promising source - mud.

“Close to 70 percent of the surface of the earth is really deep ocean mud,” said William Fenical, who directs the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography in California. His team focuses on microorganisms living on the sea floor.

“These muds contain about one billion cells in the volume of a sugar cube,” said Fenical.

For comparison, that’s one million times the organic matter you’re likely to find in a similar amount of soil on land. It’s the sheer diversity of this microbial soup that excites Fenical.

“For the last 50 years, microorganisms that occur on land have been exploited for the production of antibiotics, cancer drugs, and cholesterol lowering drugs. What we believe is that the ocean is a completely new resource for such microbial products,” he said.

Fenical’s team already has two drugs in development. He said he sees no end to prospects for ocean-based medicines.

You May Like

Multimedia Relatives of South Korean Ferry Victims Fire at Authorities

36 people are confirmed dead, but some 266 remain trapped on board More

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

$84 million project aims to clean up soil contaminated by Agent Orange More

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid