Fighting Disease with Medicines from the Sea

Humans have recognized nature’s health benefits since ancient times. Many of today’s most important medicines were inspired by the natural world. Yet, nature is more than a source of inspiration. The natural processes in nature provide a model for treating some of the world’s most serious diseases. Today, scientists search for new sources of natural products to fight diseases and improve human health. It is estimated that more than half of all pharmaceuticals in use originate from natural sources. The majority of medicines are derived from terrestrial plants and organisms. For example, aspirin comes from a compound found in the bark and leaves of the willow tree, which was first used as a traditional medicine 3500 years ago. In contrast, only a small number of marine-derived drugs are on the market. The marine-derived drugs that are available prove to be particularly effective treatments for a variety of serious diseases including some types of cancer, malaria, HIV. In 1969, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first marine-derived drug for cancer treatment called cytarabine (Ara C). Today, Ara C is used to treat acute myeloid leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This chemotherapy drug was found from none other than a species of Caribbean sponge. The sponge species is known as Tectitethya crypta. The isolated chemical compounds from this sponge led to the development of anticancer and antiviral drugs, including Ara C and AZT, a breakthrough in AIDS treatment in the 1980s.

However, the oceans remain largely undiscovered. A 2011 study published in PLoS Biology estimates that “more than 91 percent of marine organisms are unclassified and more than 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored.” Exploring the oceans for life-saving drugs is a relatively new science and we are only beginning to understand its potential. The search for new sources of drugs has led to an emerging field of study known as marine biotechnology. Marine biotechnologists develop products from marine natural resources and conduct pharmaceutical research to find new sources of drug treatments. Marine biotechnology, or blue biotechnology, is a fast-growing sector with potential that extends beyond pharmaceutical and healthcare purposes.

“There are 17 medicines today in your local pharmacies and hospitals that are derived from marine sources.” This is according to Sam Afoullouss, a PhD candidate studying Deep-sea chemistry at National University Ireland in Galway. One such medicine, Ziconotide, is a non-opioid analgesic derived from the molecules of the cone snail (Conus magus). Cone snails are immobile, so instead of actively hunting they have evolved to inject a neurotoxic venom that targets and paralyzes their prey. Scientists have isolated these natural molecules to produce a safe and effective treatment for ongoing chronic pain. This marine-derived drug works by blocking the nerves in the spinal cord that send pain signals to the brain. The pain reliever was inspired by the cone snail’s evolved ability to target and attack the nervous system. This is just one example of the diverse evolutionary adaptations that characterize marine life.

Marine organisms have been forced to adapt to the extreme pressure, light, and temperature conditions of the oceans for millions of years. These adaptations result in high genetic diversity and hold potential for biotechnological applications. Scientists recognize that with the spread of antibiotic resistance and a rising global human population, the demand for drug development remains high. When scientists collect samples, they take a minimal amount to ensure populations stay healthy and intact. Chemical samples are extracted and copied in the laboratory to then be studied and made into new antibiotics. According to Pedro Lima, a neurophysiologist, marine biologist, and co-founder of the Portuguese biotech company Sea4Us, the goal is “to be inspired by nature, so we don’t need to go back to the sea to count on the biomass. The biomass is just inspiration.”

The study of marine organisms for medical research aligns with the mission of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” However, to protect human health we have to protect the health of the oceans. Climate change, overfishing, and unsustainable fishing methods are major threats to ocean health. One fishing practice that is particularly harmful is bottom trawling. Bottom trawls are heavy weighted nets that damage fragile ecosystems and marine life growing on the seafloor, such as corals and sponges. These mesh nets drag along the seafloor, unintentionally catching marine life such as shrimp, cod, and other bottom-dwelling fish as bycatch. Entangled sea turtles and marine mammals are common in bottom trawls, although bycatch reduction policies and technologies help to mitigate these risks.

The rich biodiversity of the oceans holds promise for finding the medicines of the future, but marine natural products must be sourced sustainably. From viral outbreaks to antibiotic resistance and cancers, protecting marine biodiversity is vital to ensure a future of drug discovery from the ocean. The next cure could lie beneath the surface of the ocean.


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