Marine research may benefit cancer patients

Monday, 04 July, 2005

A team of international scientists " including Australians " has made a breakthrough in solving the problem that had put the development of marine-derived pharmaceuticals on hold for years.

Using gene technology, scientists from the Australian Institute to Marine Science (AIMS), University of Aberdeen, and the London School of Pharmacy have successfully cloned marine DNA into E. coli in a bid to obtain a sustainable supply of cancer treatment drug leads from the sea without the need for a large-scale, long-term harvest of marine creatures.

Compounds from marine organisms such as sea squirts and sponges show high potential for the treatment of cancer, inflammation and viral diseases. However the cost involved in obtaining a large-scale supply of the complex chemicals for worldwide clinical use has left the commercial manufacturing of marine-derived drugs unjustified.

"Without an assured source, pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to invest the estimated $800 million it takes to get a drug from the sea to the shelves," said Dr Chris Battershill, AIMS marine biotechnology group leader. "To produce a cancer-fighting drug from a marine-source, for example, we might need to harvest 20000 tones of a particular sponge per year to meet the global market need and this is ecologically unsound."

The research team provided the solution by extracting the genes responsible for manufacturing a cancer-fighting chemical produced by a sea squirt, and placing them in an easy-to-culture bacterium, which now produced the chemical.

"Using this methodology, we need only one small collection of the sea squirt to obtain a long-term supply of the chemical, which has potential for the treatment of certain types of lymphoma," said Dr Paul Long of London University.

Dr Long added that the study was fuelled by the input of an ecologist, a biochemist, a chemist and a molecular biologist, as well as facilitations from AIMS and its access to the Great Barrier Reef for marine sample collection.

This work was performed at AIMS Townsville in strategic collaboration with Professor Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen and Dr Paul Long of University of London, and Drs Walt Dunlap and Chris Battershill of AIMS. Additional funding was provided by the College of Physical Sciences, Aberdeen University, UK, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and the Leverhulme Trust.

The team is now refining a universal cloning technique to produce other high-value marine products, particularly those with therapeutic potential for which clinical development has stalled from the lack of a renewable supply.

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