Researchers say they have discovered a chemical found at sea corals which could be effective in the treatment of cancer.
Scientists had been researching the compound for more than 25 years after early studies in the 1990s suggested it could slow the growth of cancer cells. A researcher eventually discovered the substance in a common type of soft coral off the coast of the US state of Florida.
A research team from the University of Utah confirmed the discovery. The team said their findings could lead to widespread production of the substance for use in cancer drugs.
Researchers have recently describe their conclusions in a study published in the publication Nature Chemistry Biology.
The use of natural substances to treat disease is not new, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States. reports. Compounds from all kinds of organisms – including sea life, snakes, spiders and other animals – have long been studied and tested as possible treatments for many health conditions.
Since many corals stay in one place, they have evolved chemical defenses to protect themselves against other forms of marine life that could threaten them, reports NOAA. Scientists are studying these chemicals in an effort to find effective medical uses.
But a major obstacle to these efforts has been the difficulty of gathering enough of these compounds to conduct effective research.
The chemical used in the latest study is called eleutherobin. It was discovered in soft corals near Australia. Scientists reported in the 1990s that the chemical had anticancer properties.
Researchers involved in the study said the chemical may play a role in breaking down important cellular structures. It is used by soft corals as a defense against predators. But scientific studies have suggested that the compound also shows promise for reducing cancer cell growth.
The studies have led scientists to continue searching for large amounts of the chemical that would be needed to perform further testing and possibly develop new cancer drugs. But these efforts were unsuccessful for many years.
Then a scientist working on the University of Utah team, Paul Scesa, found a soft coral in the ocean off the coast of Florida that contained eleutherobin.
The team investigated whether the corals made the chemical themselves or whether it was produced by symbiotic organisms living inside corals. Scesis said in a statement, it made “no sense” to him that the compound was only produced by other organisms.
His team knew, for example, that some soft corals don’t have symbiotic organisms and yet their bodies contain the same collection of chemicals.
To test their theory, the researchers tried to find out how corals produced the compound. To do this, they had to study the corals genetic code to find out if it contained instructions on how to produce the chemical.
This process is possible thanks to modern methods of studying the DNA of organisms. DNA is present in almost all living things and carries genetic information.
The next step was difficult because the scientists didn’t know what the instructions for making the chemical should look like.
But they reported they were able to identify parts of DNA in the coral that closely matched the genetic instructions for similar compounds in other species. They were then able to deliver these instructions to bacteria grown inside a lab. The team reported that the bacterial microorganisms were able to copy the first steps in making eleutherobin.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to do this with any drug in mind on Earth,” said lead researcher Eric Schmidt. He is a professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah Health.
The researchers say their experiments have shown that it should be possible to make the chemical in the lab. This could lead to an eventual widespread production of new cancer drugs.
Scesa said he hopes to one day be able to hand over the drug to a doctor. “I think it’s going from the bottom of the ocean to bench at the bedside,” he says.
I am Brian Lynn.
Bryan Lynn wrote this story, based on reports from the University of Utah Health, Nature Chemical Biology and NOAA.
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words in this story
coral – nm a hard or soft substance, usually pink or white, produced by a type of very small marine animal
predator – nm an animal that hunts and kills other animals for food
symbiotic – adj. involving two species of animals or plants in which each provides the conditions necessary for the existence of the other
genetic code -not. information from DNA or RNA used to create an organism’s proteins
species – nm a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants
bench – nm a long table to work
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