Marine Life Fights Cancer


A sponge bearing the compound leiodermatolide was collected off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 401 m via manned submersible several years ago, and the compound is now being studied for its cancer-fighting properties.

Dr. Esther A. Guzmán, an associate research professor of marine biomedical and biotechnology research at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at FAU, is part of the team examining leiodermatolide as a potential treatment for pancreatic cancer. Sea Technology spoke with her about her research.

When did you start this research?
For many years, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) had a ship and a submersible that allowed us to collect deep-sea organisms. Back in the ’80s, J. Seaward Johnson Jr.—the director of HBOI at the time—thought we should investigate the marine creatures collected for their cancer-fighting properties.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers for which we don’t currently have effective treatments. The fiver-year survival rate is about eight percent. We have been testing to see if marine compounds can fight pancreatic cancer. Leiodermatolide is one of the many marine natural compounds that we have identified with anti-cancer properties. This particular compound is highly toxic to cancer cells. It also shows selectivity, meaning it kills more cancer cells than normal cells. In chemotherapy, people lose normal cells. We’re trying to get chemo with selectivity to minimize side effects.

When did you start researching this particular sponge?
We’ve been working on it for a few years. We first found that the compound could kill cancer cells using very little of the compound, meaning it is very potent. This compound causes cell-cycle arrest, or stops cancer cells from dividing. This is the mechanism that many approved drugs such as taxol use to treat cancers. We were trying to figure out how it did it. Leiodermatolide does it through a unique mechanism.

We are very excited about this particular compound. In animals with pancreatic tumors, this compound reduced the size of those tumors.

When did you start isolating the compound?
The compound was isolated by our chemistry group, Dr. Amy Wright and her team. Around 2011, we [Guzmán’s group at Harbor Branch] got the compound itself. We tested it on cancer cells first. It was only recently we put it in an animal study.

What are the next steps?
We would like to do a little more testing. We showed a reduction of the tumor, but we didn’t get the prolongation of life we wanted. We only used a single dose of treatment. We want to set up more treatment, more steady, to see if we can reduce the amount of treatment and prolong life. Then, we are hoping we can partner with a pharmaceutical company for clinical trials. Finding a partner and starting clinical trials could take a few years, and the whole process to go from where we are to the clinic may take anywhere from ten to twenty years.

Right now we’re trying to secure the funding for the next steps in the lab. Once we get the funding, we will do further testing in tumor to optimize the dose at which the treatment confers the most benefits.

Could this apply to other types of cancer?
This could apply to other types of cancer—colon, breast cancers. We do wish to explore it more. We’re trying to get the funding.

–Aileen Torres-Bennett

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