Researchers say they have found a chemical found in the sea corals which may be effective in treating cancer.
Scientists have been searching for the compound for more than 25 years, after early research in the 1990s suggested it could slow the growth of cancer cells. A researcher has finally discovered the substance in plain 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 results could lead to widespread production of the substance for use in cancer drugs.
Researchers recently described their findings in a study in the publication Natural chemical biology.
The use of natural substances to treat disease is not new, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Compounds from all kinds of organisms – including marine life, snakes, spiders and other animals – have long been studied and tested as possible treatments for many health conditions.
As many corals remain in one place, they have developed chemical defenses to protect against other forms of marine life that could endanger them, NOAA reported. Scientists are studying such chemicals in an attempt to find effective medical applications.
But a major obstacle to these efforts is the difficulty of collecting enough of these compounds to perform effective research.
The chemical used in the last study is called eleutherobin. It is found in soft corals near Australia. In the 1990s, scientists reported that the chemical had anti-cancer properties.
Researchers involved in the study said the chemical could play a role in breaking down important cellular structures. Used by soft corals as protection against predators. But scientific studies suggest that the compound is also promising in reducing the growth of cancer cells.
The research has led scientists to continue looking for large amounts of the chemical that would be needed to conduct additional tests and possibly develop new cancer drugs. But these efforts have been unsuccessful for many years.
Paul Sheza, a researcher on the University of Utah team, then discovered soft coral in the ocean off the coast of Florida that contained eleutherobin.
The team tried to find out if the corals made the chemical themselves or it was made by symbiotic organisms living in corals. Scesa said in a statement that it “made no sense” that the compound would only be produced by other organisms.
His team knew, for example, that some soft corals do not have symbiotic organisms, and yet their bodies contain the same collection of chemicals.
To test their theory, the researchers tried to understand how corals produce the compound. To do this, they had to study corals genetic code to learn whether it includes instructions on how to manufacture the chemical.
This process is possible through modern methods for studying the DNA of organisms. DNA is present in almost all living things and is a carrier of genetic information.
The next step was difficult because the scientists did not know what the instructions for making the chemical should look like.
But they said they were able to identify pieces of DNA in the coral that are very close to the genetic instructions for similar compounds in other kinds. They were then able to provide these instructions to laboratory-grown bacteria. The team reported that bacterial microorganisms were able to copy the first steps in the production of eleutherobin.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to do this with lead drugs on Earth,” said lead researcher Eric Schmidt. He is a professor of medical chemistry at the University of Utah Health.
Researchers say their experiments have shown that it should be possible to produce a chemical in a laboratory. This may lead to the widest possible production of new anti-cancer drugs.
Scesa said she hopes to one day be able to deliver the medicine to a doctor. “I think of it as moving from the bottom of the ocean to bench to the bed, “he said.
I’m Brian Lynn.
Brian Lynn wrote this story based on reports from the University of Utah on health, chemical biology and NOAA.
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Words in this story
coral – n. hard or soft, usually pink or white matter produced from a species of very small marine animal
predator – n. an animal that hunts and kills other animals for food
symbiotic – adj. including two species of animals or plants in which each provides the necessary conditions for the existence of the other
genetic code -n. information from DNA or RNA that is used to make proteins in the body
kinds – n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants
bench – long table for work