UWC in­ten­sify anti-can­cer study

25-year re­search into us­ing chem­i­cal found in marine sponges con­tin­ues

Daily Dispatch - - Health - TANYA FAR­BER

Some marine sponges – of which SA’s coast­line is a trea­sure trove – were found many years ago to have anti-can­cer prop­er­ties.

How­ever, they’re so toxic that ad­min­is­ter­ing them to pa­tients would kill off healthy cells, not just the can­cer cells.

Now, re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of the Western Cape – who are copy­ing the struc­tures of the mol­e­cules and pro­duc­ing them in the lab­o­ra­tory – are try­ing to fig­ure out a de­liv­ery agent that will only tar­get the can­cer cells.

In do­ing so, they have col­lated a quar­ter of a cen­tury of re­search on this elu­sive sea fam­ily, la­trun­culid sponges, and have just had the pa­per pub­lished in the South African Jour­nal of Sci­ence.

The name “la­trun­culid sponges” is from the word lantru­culins which refers to the fam­ily of nat­u­ral prod­ucts and tox­ins that are pro­duced.

The re­port’s lead au­thor Prof Michael Davies-Cole­man, who is dean of nat­u­ral sci­ences at UWC, said: “Marine or­gan­isms can’t move around. Some, like urchins, have spines to pro­tect them. Mol­luscs have shells, but the softer things in ti­dal pools, like sponges, don’t have a shell and can­not run away. They must de­fend them­selves chem­i­cally, and it is just pure luck that there are phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions for the chem­i­cals they pro­duce.”

Co-au­thor Edith An­tunes, from UWC’s de­part­ment of chem­istry, adds: “They are in a crowded en­vi­ron­ment com­pet­ing for food and try­ing not to be eaten.”

They thus pro­duce com­pounds to pro­tect them­selves and these can be “stun­ning colours of red, green and blue”, she says, adding that they are es­sen­tially de­ter­rents to other or­gan­isms who might feed on them.

But, says Davies-Cole­man, it is im­por­tant to note that this is not in and of it­self a “cure for can­cer. You can’t just swal­low the sponge and say now ev­ery­thing is sorted.”

An­tunes says: “These com­pounds are so toxic that they would also kill nor­mal cells. Be­cause they’re ex­tremely toxic, we are work­ing on a de­liv­ery agent that will only tar­get can­cer cells and we will see if that works out.”

For Davies-Cole­man, the pa­per just pub­lished is “a story about 30 years of work on one group of sponges that in­cluded peo­ple from many dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines”.

They in­clude phar­ma­col­o­gists, mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gists, ecol­o­gists and ichthy­ol­o­gists.

Marine biodis­cov­ery (or bio­prospect­ing) is the search for new phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, and Davies-Cole­man said although his team was not the only one do­ing it, it has been at it the long­est in SA.

“We – and New Zealand – have a bio­di­ver­sity of this par­tic­u­lar group of sponges and it has opened up a whole new field of sponge tax­on­omy. It’s a whole group ef­fort and these are the most stud­ied sponges in Africa,” he says.

An­tunes says they have started work on the sponges as far back as 1996, “and af­ter that more pa­pers were pub­lished. Since our lab did the ma­jor­ity of the work, we put it all to­gether into one pa­per”.

Pic­ture: 123RF.COM

BREAK­THROUGH RE­SEARCH? Some marine sponges – of which SA’s coast­line is a trea­sure trove – were found many years ago to have anti-can­cer prop­er­ties.

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