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.
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

China May Be Biggest Winner From Ukraine Crisis

Missile sales, oil and gas shipments are among many areas that may drive Beijing and Moscow closer together in coming years More

Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power

Current foreign policy issues bring into focus challenges for US policymakers who are mindful of Americans' waning appetite for overseas military engagements More

SADC Meeting Lesotho Officials to Resolve Stalemate

Official says regional bloc has been engaged with leaders in Lesotho to resolve political disagreement that led to coup attempt 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.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid