These Oceanographers Want to Turn Marine Slime into Drugs

This article comes from Eric Niiler 10.27.2020 08:00 AM

A California team will use a robotic vehicle to study tiny seafloor creatures, hoping they might yield new compounds to fight viruses and cancer.

A research ship on a calm ocean

ON WEDNESDAY, A crew of technicians will hoist a remotely operated vehicle dubbed Hercules from its berth on an oceanographic research vessel down into a patch of ocean about 150 miles off the Southern California coast. After being released from the crane, the tethered craft will slowly sink to the seafloor between 2,000 and 5,000 feet below, and begin a treasure hunt for new kinds of compounds that could one day become medicines.

The VW Beetle-sized Hercules and 211-foot Nautilus will spend the next 10 days in a region called the Southern California Borderlands, which includes underwater seamounts, canyons, and ridges that are covered in layers of mineral-laden sediments and rocks. The expedition is led by Scripps and the Ocean Exploration Trust (which operates the Nautilus), and sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The geological features contain crusts of phosphorite and ferromanganese—minerals that have commercial value as sources of fertilizer and are mined from the seafloor off the coasts of Namibia and Mexico. But it’s the living creatures that populate this unexplored habitat that could hide a biological goldmine. That’s because the compounds produced by these seafloor animals may also have anti-cancer, antibacterial, or antiviral properties.

As of this month, 14 drugs derived from marine organisms have been approved by federal regulators, according to a database compiled by the Midwestern University Department of Marine Pharmacology, including treatments for various cancers and a cholesterol-lowering drug. Another 23 compounds derived from everything from marine sponges and worms to pufferfish are currently in Phase I, II, or III Food and Drug Administration clinical trials.

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