FAU seeks remedies from the sea

Imagine a medicine so powerful that just one-twentieth of an ounce could cure 100 breast and prostate cancer patients. Now imagine this wonder drug could be extracted from a lowly ocean parasite the size of a grape.

Sound like science fiction? It’s already a fact — ocean researchers have discovered that the sea squirt possesses a chemical called ET-743, which is currently in its last phase of human trials and is expected to receive FDA approval in the next few years.

Dr. Larry Lemanski, FAU’s vice president for Research and Graduate Studies, is leading a team of researchers who hope to make a dozen such amazing discoveries right off the coast of South Florida. Last year, Lemanski created FAU’s Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Technology, and in May, the Center was awarded $10 million from the state of Florida to get it up and running.

Lemanski and a newly organized team of FAU researchers will be diving off the coast of Florida to extract chemicals from organisms ranging from squirts and sponges to snails and sharks in hopes of developing new medicines that will fight cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and countless other ailments.

Last year eighteen proposals from state universities were presented to the Emerging Technology Commission, a group of leaders in the technology field appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to identify breakthrough research initiatives in Florida. FAU’s was one of the three proposals selected in February by the ETC for funding recommendation, along with bids by the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida. In March, the Florida Board of Education gave its unanimous approval of FAU’s request, and on May 21, the State Legislative Budget Commission approved release of the funds. The first payment is expected in July.

“This funding will enable FAU and its partner institutions to aggressively pursue the search for new drugs and therapies to combat disease, while also benefiting our students through stronger academic programs, the recruitment of additional world-class faculty, and support of cutting-edge research facilities,” Lemanski says.

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the fields of marine biotechnology, ocean engineering, chemistry and biology will find research opportunities with the Center, working alongside faculty researchers. They will have access to underwater vehicles to locate marine organisms, as well as the use of new technology, such as FAU’s Affymetrix Genechip Machine, to study organisms for disease-fighting properties.

“One of the major goals of the ETC is to help train an educated workforce,” says Debra Kain, director of communications for FAU’s Division of Research and Graduate Studies. “A portion of the funding will be spent on educational outreach and workforce training in marine biotechnology and ocean exploration.”

Kain adds that the majority of the funding will go directly to research and, secondly, to commercialization and technology transfer.

The grant money is expected to keep the Center running for two years, after which the Center’s faculty researchers will seek additional funding.

“The $10 million will certainly get us off the ground,” Lemanski says, “but we envision this as a sustainable project that will leverage funding from other sources, including the commercialization of new medicines and the spin-off of new companies, not to mention additional federal and private research grants.”

Dr. Herb Weissbach, director of FAU’s Center for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, believes the establishment of the Center will introduce a new era of productivity at the university.

“The major effect the funding will have is to jumpstart a lot of programs here at FAU,” Weissbach says. “It will have a ripple effect, attracting new faculty and younger scientists like graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. It will also support training programs and help investigators get more funding for their work.”

The Center’s founders also anticipate that the commercialization of medicines created at the Center will augment the area’s economy.

“The vision of the Center for Excellence clearly aligns with Florida’s future economic focus,” Kain says. “It fills a unique niche by bringing together the collective talents of academics and industry to capitalize on Florida’s 8,432 miles of coast.”

Stewart Glegg, chair of ocean engineering at FAU, serves on the Center’s steering committee. Glegg was “very pleased” when the Center was approved. “Hopefully it will help us to continue to improve our quality of life,” he says.