The beaches of Florida attract visitors from far and wide, making the east and west coasts popular vacation destinations. The surface level beauty of the beach environment is what tends to draw in the masses, but scientists are far more interested in what happens beneath the surface.
“Not many people right now are looking in the ocean for new drugs, but more and more are starting to because it is becoming more recognized as a treasure trove for new drugs,” Hendrik Luesch, a professor and chair of the department of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida, said.
Many drug research efforts occurring at the University of Florida are focused on marine and natural products that will lead to advancements in medications and treatments for cancers. Luesch was involved in a recent discovery of a marine compound off the east coast of Florida named gatorbulin-1 that could potentially be used in the fight against cancer; this discovery highlights the importance of searching the ocean’s biodiversity.
A common protein that many anticancer drugs target is tubulin, and the unique structure of gatorbulin-1 allows it to bind to a particular site on this protein that no other drug has targeted before, ultimately slowing the division of cancer cells. The gatorbulin-1 molecule is one of many marine products that came from intensive studies of the ocean.
Because much of the planet is made of water, more biodiversity is present in the ocean than on land, which presumably means that the more organisms you have, the higher your chances are that these chemicals can translate into drugs, Luesch said.
“I believe that it is a smarter approach to start with something in nature because often times the product itself is already a good treatment,” Luesch said. “Products like cyanobacteria are not making these compounds to treat cancer, but they target something else in their natural environment that is structurally similar to something involved in cancer progression.”
Natural products often have a better ability to attack the cancer molecules because they are more selective, Yousong Ding, an associate professor in the medicinal chemistry department at the University of Florida, said.
“Cancer for a long time has been the top cause of death, making it a critical need,” Ding said. “Because people need better and more selective anticancer drugs, this has been the driving force for the anticancer research in the marine environment.”
Obtaining these marine products is an extremely difficult process, so a large focus of Ding’s work is on testing genomes and recreating in the labs the chemicals that the marine products produce. One of his goals, Ding said, is to advance the in-lab studies of genomes from the marine products to decrease the act of physically extracting the organisms from their habitats.
A typical process of studying these compounds begins with retrieval of the organism, followed by chemistry steps to isolate pure compounds from the marine products, said Sandra Loesgen, an associate professor of chemistry at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience. Scientists want to study these pure compounds so that they can learn all the side effects and be sure that they are not creating damage elsewhere.
Several natural agents have multiple purposes and are effective in areas beyond anticancer efforts such as antiviral and antibacterial.
“There is a whole class of drugs that are antibiotics but kill mammalian, or cancer, cells,” Loesgen said. “We normally stay away from this because if you have an HIV patient, you do not want to possibly kill him because cancer drugs also affect normal cells.”
The selectivity that specific marine molecules have for particular target sites is desired for the elimination of these cancer cells without hurting the rest of the patient’s body, Loesgen said. The common goal of researching marine products is to continue to find these molecules that will isolate to a specific target site for the most optimal treatment for patients.
“You might think that we know the depths of the ocean and the biodiversity of the ocean, but it is still largely uncharted,” Loesgen said. “There is really cool new chemistry in the ocean and we just need to be brave to go in and find it.”