Saturday, 25 October 2008

Cures from the Deep: The Search for New Pharmaceuticals from Deep Water Western Indian Ocean Marine Sponges.

The search for new chemical entities with exploitable medicinal properties is the cornerstone of modern drug discovery. Traditionally, these new chemical entities have been procured from several sources including the vast natural product reservoirs characteristic of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Many marine organisms (invertebrates e.g. sponges; algae and micro-organisms) produce natural products (biomolecules) as chemical defence agents against predation or in a chemically mediated response to, inter alia, inter-species competition for limited resources (e.g. space on a reef or nutrients) and intra-species communication (e.g. larval settling cues). Surprisingly, many of these marine natural products also possess medicinal properties and internationally several marine derived chemical compounds are currently in development as new anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs.

The coastline of southern Africa, and the deeper waters off its shores, sustains a unique diversity of endemic marine fauna and flora that can offer rich rewards for marine natural products chemists in search of novel bioactive marine natural products with medicinal properties. For the last fifteen years Professor Mike Davies-Coleman’s marine natural products research group at Rhodes University has been systematically searching for new marine natural products, with medicinal potential, from the marine invertebrates occurring off the coast of South Africa, Mozambique and Marion Island in the Southern Ocean. While the southern African inshore benthic communities are reasonably accessible with the aid of SCUBA, accessing offshore deepwater invertebrate communities is logistically problematic, and the marine sponge material collected as part of the Macarene Leg of the ASCLME cruise will be crucial in enhancing our knowledge of Western Indian Ocean marine biomolecular diversity.
The Rhodes University research group is part of an international collaboration working together to discover possible new marine medicines and has strong research links to the National Cancer Institute in the USA and marine natural product research groups in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Marine sponge material collected during this ASCLME cruise will be screened for natural products that are able to either kill oesophageal cancer cells or activate enzymes that halt the onset of arthritis and osteoporosis. The Eastern Cape Province of South Africa has the highest reported incidence of oesophageal and cervical cancer in South Africa and the identification of marine natural products exhibiting cytotoxicity towards the former cancer is an important component of marine drug discovery efforts at Rhodes University.
Text by Professor Mike Davies-Coleman
Images by Kim Bernard

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