Drugs from the deep: scientists explore ocean frontiers

Sea squirts cling to oyster lines.

Some are sending divers in speedboats, others are sending underwater robots to search the sea floor, and one group is developing a “sludge rocket” — all tools scientists use to scan the world’s oceans for the next powerful cancer treatment or antibiotic.

A drug molecule could be found in microbes accumulated in sediment, produced by porous sponges or marine debris—barrel-bodied creatures that cling to rocks or the bottom of boats—or by bacteria living symbiotically in a snail.

But once a compound reveals potential for treating, say, Alzheimer’s or epilepsy, developing it into a drug typically takes a decade or more and costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Suppose you want to cure cancer – how do you know what to study?” said William Fenical, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, considered a pioneer in the hunt for marine-derived drugs.

“You do not do this”.

With tight budgets and little support from big pharma, scientists often turn to other research missions.

Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said their colleagues collect samples by dropping a large metal tube down a 5,000-meter (16,400-foot) cable that “boils” the sea floor. A more sophisticated method uses small, remote-controlled underwater vehicles.

“I tell people, all I really want is a mud pipe,” he told AFP.

Laboratories around the world have libraries of compounds that can be screened against new diseases

Laboratories around the world have libraries of compounds that can be screened against new diseases.

This small but innovative area of ​​marine exploration is at the center of crucial negotiations on the UN treaty on the high seas, covering waters beyond national jurisdiction, which could conclude this week with new rules governing marine protected areas of vital importance for the protection of biodiversity.

Nations have long argued over how to share the benefits of marine genetic resources in the open ocean – including compounds used in medicines, bioplastics and food stabilizers, said Daniel Kachelriess, the High Seas Alliance’s head of the issue at negotiations.

And yet only a small number of products with marine genetic resources are making their way onto the market, with just seven on record in 2019, he said. The value of the potential royalties has been estimated at $10 to $30 million per year.

But the vast biological diversity of the oceans means that much more is likely to be discovered.

“The more we look, the more we find,” said Jaspars, whose lab specializes in compounds from the world’s extreme environments, such as underwater hydrothermal vents and polar regions.

Natural origins

Ever since Alexander Fleming discovered a mold-repelling bacteria he named penicillin in 1928, researchers have studied and synthesized chemical compounds produced primarily by plants, animals, insects, and land microbes to treat human disease.

“The vast majority of antibiotics and anticancer drugs come from natural sources,” Fenical told AFP, adding that when he started in 1973, people were skeptical that the oceans had anything to offer.

Professor William Fenical with a tool used to collect ocean sediments

Professor William Fenical with a tool used to collect ocean sediments.

In an early discovery in the mid-1980s, Fenical and his colleagues discovered a type of sea whip—a soft coral—that grows on reefs in the Bahamas produced a molecule with anti-inflammatory properties.

It caught the eye of cosmetics company Estee Lauder, who helped develop it for use in their product at the time.

But the quantities of sea whips needed to research and market the compound eventually led Fenical to abandon marine animals and instead focus on microorganisms.

Researchers collect sediment from the ocean floor and then grow the microbes they find in the lab.

In 1991 Fenical and his colleagues found a previously unknown marine bacterium called Salinispora in mud off the coast of the Bahamas.

More than a decade of work has yielded two cancer drugs, one for lung cancer and the other for the untreatable brain tumor glioblastoma. Both are in the final stages of clinical trials.

Fenical—who at 81 still runs a lab at Scripps—said the researchers were excited to get here, but the excitement is tempered by caution.

“You never know if something is going to be really good or not useful at all,” he said.

A sea squirt in the Mediterranean Sea

A sea squirt in the Mediterranean Sea.

New frontiers

That long pipeline comes as no surprise to Carmen Cuevas Marchante, head of research and development at Spanish biotech company PharmaMar.

For their first drug, they started by cultivating and harvesting about 300 tons of sea urchin.

“From a ton we could isolate less than a gram” of the compound needed for clinical trials, he told AFP.

The company now has three cancer drugs approved, all derived from marine debris, and has optimized its methods for making synthetic versions of natural compounds.

Even if all goes well, Marchante said, it can take 15 years between discovery and bringing a product to market.

In all, 17 marine-derived drugs have been approved to treat human disease since 1969, with about 40 in various stages of clinical trials worldwide, according to the online tracker Marine Drug Pipeline.

Those already on the market include a herpes antiviral from a sponge and a powerful painkiller from a cone snail, but most treat cancer.

Scripps Institute of Oceanography PhD student Kate Bauman with cultures of Salinispora -- the basis of potential anticancer drugs

Scripps Institution of Oceanography PhD student Kate Bauman with cultures of Salinispora — the basis of potential anticancer drugs.

That, experts say, is partly because the huge cost of clinical trials—potentially more than a billion dollars—favors the development of more expensive drugs.

But there is a “myriad” of early-stage research on marine compounds for everything from malaria to tuberculosis, said Alejandro Mayer, a professor of pharmacology at Midwestern University in Illinois who directs the Marine Pipeline project and whose specialty is brain immunity. System.

That means there’s still huge potential to find the next antibiotic or HIV treatment, scientists say.

It can be produced by a creature buried in ocean sediments or quietly attached to the hull of a ship.

Or it could already be in our possession: laboratories around the world have libraries of compounds that can be screened against new diseases.

“There’s a whole new frontier out there,” Fenical said.

© 2023 AFP

Reference: Drugs from the deep: scientists explore ocean frontiers (2023 March 3) retrieved March 3, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-drugs-deep-scientists-explore-ocean.html

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