Magazine article Drug Topics

Under the Sea, Scientists Find Drugs with Potential

Magazine article Drug Topics

Under the Sea, Scientists Find Drugs with Potential

Article excerpt

Mention the ocean, and you create powerful visual images. We might think of waves pounding against the shore, fishermen casting out their nets, or a small child gazing with wonder at a shell washed up on the sand.

But marine scientists see beyond the ocean surface. They are beginning to explore the mystery of the ocean floor and are discovering that within many of its plant and animal inhabitants are powerful bioactive substances that may result in useful drugs.

Unknown so far: The depths of the ocean are largely uncharted, however, because there are not enough trained individuals to adequately explore the sea, and the pharmaceutical industry doesn't understand it, claims Dr. William H. Fenical. He is a professor of oceanography and director of the Institute of Marine Resources at Scripps Institution of the University of California-San Diego.

"The ocean is a very poorly known place," he told members of the ASHP at a meeting of the hospital pharmacy organization last year in San Diego. "We've been exploring it for only 30 to 40 years.

The pharmaceutical industry doesn't understand the ocean, he explained, because it lacks both the necessary background knowledge and special equipment needed to explore it properly. "They (pharmaceutical researchers) can't control microorganisms in the ocean the way they do plants on land," Fenical said "They don't know 'aquaculture' the way they know agriculture."

Fenical said scientists can no longer rely on terrestrial plants for the bioactive substances needed for new drug creation. "The discovery of new antibiotics from soil-borne microorganisms is a diminishing return," he explained. "The growing resistance to antibiotic and antitumor drugs obviously indicates that we need a growing resource for new and unusual drug materials--unusual in the sense that they are effective through new mechanisms of treatment."

Unlike land, where there are a limited number of plants and animals and a limited number of classes of invertebrates, the ocean contains millions of species of plants and animals, Fenical explained. Also unlike land, the ocean carries in it a genetic diversity that is "the real key to drug development."

Since the introduction of the aqualung in the 1940s, science has had a "relatively small window with which to investigate the diversity, biochemical processes, and concept of drug development from the marine environment," he said. However, since then, many discoveries have been made, such as the presence of promising antifungal and antibiotic materials in marine plants and animals.

Antifungal: The Dictyopteris Undulata, for example, is a small iridescent blue alga that has been found to contain "a series of potent, bioactive compounds that have powerful antifungal properties," Fenical said. Chemotherapy against systemic fungal infections is clearly an area where drug development is needed, he added.

Other marine plants have already been the source of drug-related products, Fenical continued. For example, the giant kelp, a California plant that sometimes reaches a length of 300 ft., can be processed to make emulsifying products called alginates. These products are used in the food industry as well as in drug coatings.

Invertebrates in the ocean may hold even more promise for the pharmaceutical industry, Fenical said. The soft coral and the sponge, for example, both contain very powerful antibiotic materials, he explained. One of the largest sponges, the Xestospongia meeta, is 14 ft. in diameter and 20 ft. high. Five divers can crawl inside and swim around, he said. …

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