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

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment 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.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid