FAU researchers explore cure to cancer in coral reefs

Researchers say that the cure to cancer and other diseases may be found off the Atlantic coast.

Photo courtesy of nasa.gov

Photo courtesy of nasa.gov

Nicole Pujazon, Contributing Writer

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For years, marine scientists have been studying coral reefs to understand its vital role in nature.

Researchers at FAU are looking at potential medicines derived from coral reefs that could be used to treat human diseases. In the latest breakthrough, sea sponges may contain the cure to cancer.          

Shirley Pomponi, a researcher at FAU who has been studying sea sponges for over 30 years and specializes in sponge biotechnology, said in an interview with Ecowatch that these small ocean organisms have systems similar to ours.

“Somehow [the sea sponges] make sure cancer cell precursors either repair themselves or die,” said Pomponi. “What we can learn from that could mean a better understanding of how cancer develops in humans—and how we might even prevent it. We can not only tap into their arsenal of chemicals, but also their metabolic pathways for human health applications.”

To test the regenerative properties of sea sponge on human cancer cells, marine biomedical researchers like FAU professor Amy Wright created an extract from organisms and tested it in various situations related to cancer.

“If pathogenic bacteria is in the water, they need antibiotics–just like we do.” Dr. Wright explained. “The coral reef can overcome many challenges that we call natural products. This allows them to communicate and they can ward of infections, make molecules that taste bad or are toxic to block nutrient uptake and keep things from eating them.”

Discovering disease-fighting medicines in nature is not a new concept. Dr. Wright says plants, herbs, and botanical medicines have been tested and approved for medicinal use for decades.

For example, Aspirin is a compound element developed as a painkiller based on the natural product salicylic acid, which can be found in, beans, peas, and certain grasses and trees.

While coral reefs play a fundamental role in ocean ecosystems, studies show that they are dying on a global scale. Dr. Wright assures that the samples they collect are selective and do not impact the reef in a negative way.

As long as there is still a “natural product” left on Earth to sample, a long-term organic cancer drug will be sought and tested by scientists and in labs like the ones at FAU.

Nicole Pujazon is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet her @NicolePujazon.