you're reading...


Marine life: Coming to a PharmaSea near you!

Paper: Jaspars M, Pascale D De, Andersen JH, Reyes F, Crawford AD, Ianora A (2016) The marine biodiscovery pipeline and ocean medicines of tomorrow. J Mar Biol Assoc UK 96:151–158 (Open Access!)

People have been using medicines made from the ocean’s residents ever since ancient times. Coastal Asian cultures have eaten seaweeds since 1400 BC, which helped them introduce the necessary nutrient iodine into their diets to help prevent goiter. Cod liver oil was all the rage as a nutritional supplement for northern Europeans in the early 20th century to help prevent rickets. The Irish folk medicine tradition uses the seaweed Irish moss (Chrondus crispus) to soothe colds, sore throats, and chest infections. But that’s all in the past, right? Modern medicine comes from chemists in labs around the world?

Not quite. Ocean life is crucial to our development of new pharmaceutical drugs. There are over 28,000 potential compounds that have been isolated from marine organisms that could be the next cure for a variety of diseases, and more are being discovered every year. Right now, there is a large push to make those compounds into functioning drugs available to the public. Recent technological advances in sciences such as genomics and proteomics (studying the genome and the proteins of an organism, respectively) have made it economically feasible to isolate the compound from the animal, and then develop the drugs in labs.

This paper, a collaboration among five different EU countries, was put together by the PharmaSea program. PharmaSea is an international effort by 24 institutions for drug discovery. Their specific focus is to find new compounds from marine organisms to treat bacterial infections, inflammation, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This unique program is targeting some of the most extreme regions of the ocean – hydrothermal vents and deep ocean trenches – to try to find those compounds.

Figure 1 – A hydrothermal vent system, maybe the source of our next medicines? Source: Wikimedia Commons















Why look at marine organisms, especially those adapted to extreme habitats, for new drugs? The ocean is inherently difficult and hostile to live in – lots of predators in a 3D environment that can vary in terms of temperature, salinity, and pressure. As a response, marine organisms have evolved a lot of secondary metabolites (the prime compounds to look at for drug discovery) to help them survive. Secondary metabolites are compounds the organism synthesizes to defend against disease, parasites, or predators. A common example is penicillin – a drug made from the Penicillium fungi – that kills certain types of bacteria by interfering with their ability to create a cell wall. (Click for a cool video!)

Because the ocean environment is so different from the terrestrial environment, many of the compounds these marine animals have evolved have no terrestrial equivalent. Animals that live in extreme systems, like hydrothermal vents, are even more likely to contain these special secondary metabolites. Their environments are even harder to live in than the rest of the ocean because of the high pressure, low temperatures, high concentrations of hazardous chemicals, and zero light availability.

The PharmaSea program is using innovative technologies like remotely operated vehicles to probe the deep sea for new animals to isolate compounds from. They’re focusing their energies on marine microorganisms for two reasons: (1) they’re easier to collect, and (2) they’re easier to propagate in the lab. Once a microorganism is found, it goes through cultivation with different stressors (bacteria viruses, tumors, etc). If it survives the stressors, it goes though additional testing for antibiotic resistance. If the compound has a neural component, it is tested on zebrafish larvae (easier to culture than lab mice!) to see how they behave with the compound. There is a lot of screening that goes into finding exactly which compounds are likely to be effective in pharmaceuticals.

The PharmaSea program is looking to expand the development of marine organism-based drugs, but so far, there have been a few discovered that are already being used. Marine animals are very good at destroying non-native cells – lots of parasites in the ocean – so one major category of marine-derived drugs are anti-cancer medications. There are anti-cancer drugs out there made from sponges and tunicates that have successfully treated non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and ovarian cancer. Another compound, isolated from a cone snail, eases severe pain in patients who didn’t respond to other drugs. Still others come from fish oils, and have been in trials to reduce triglycerides, which would aid patients with obesity, diabetes, and atherosclerosis.

Figure 2 - Medicines and their little known sources: marine life!

Figure 2 – Medicines and their little known sources: marine life! Source: Jaspars et al. 2016.












Another major area of research is in nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals – compounds that aren’t for clinical use, but are nutritional supplements. You’ve likely heard of omega-3 fatty acids, which come from krill oil, but there are so many more health benefits associated with these marine-derived compounds. Carotenoid pigments from algae are said to be anti-aging, astaxanthin from shellfish shells is said to be an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and marine collagen peptides from fishes are said to have anti-hypertension properties.

Figure 3 - Nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals with their lesser known sources: more marine life!

Figure 3 – Nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals with their lesser known sources: more marine life! Source: Jaspars et al. 2016.














The paper ends with a nod to preservation and conservation, as it should. When we think about all the pharmaceuticals that we could cultivate from these marine organisms, it makes sense to preserve our ocean environment. In terms of hydrothermal vents, in many instances, we don’t even know what pollution does to these systems because they were only discovered thirty years ago. Just one more thing to think about as we talk about conserving the ocean’s biodiversity – the cure for cancer may be threatened due to pollution and climate change effects, and we won’t even know until we find it.

Engage: What products in your home are made from algae or marine compounds? Hint: check this link for a list of what to look for.

Bonus: If you’re interested in learning more about various marine-based nutritional supplements, check out examine.com, a site that synthesizes and breaks down peer-reviewed literature to tell you if what you’re taking is effective or not. Here’s the link to their page on fish oil to get you started. Enjoy!


No comments yet.

Post a Comment


  • by oceanbites 3 months ago
    Happy Earth Day! Take some time today to do something for the planet and appreciate the ocean, which covers 71% of the Earth’s surface.  #EarthDay   #OceanAppreciation   #Oceanbites   #CoastalVibes   #CoastalRI 
  • by oceanbites 4 months ago
    Not all outdoor science is fieldwork. Some of the best days in the lab can be setting up experiments, especially when you get to do it outdoors. It’s an exciting mix of problem solving, precision, preparation, and teamwork. Here is
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    Being on a research cruise is a unique experience with the open water, 12-hour working shifts, and close quarters, but there are some familiar practices too. Here Diana is filtering seawater to gather chlorophyll for analysis, the same process on
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #oceanbites  we are featuring Hannah Collins  @hannahh_irene  Hannah works with marine suspension feeding bivalves and microplastics, investigating whether ingesting microplastics causes changes to the gut microbial community or gut tissues. She hopes to keep working
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    Leveling up - did you know that crabs have a larval phase? These are both porcelain crabs, but the one on the right is the earlier stage. It’s massive spine makes it both difficult to eat and quite conspicuous in
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Cierra Braga. Cierra works ultraviolet c (UVC) to discover how this light can be used to combat biofouling, or the growth of living things, on the hulls of ships. Here, you
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Elena Gadoutsis  @haysailor  These photos feature her “favorite marine research so far: From surveying tropical coral reefs, photographing dolphins and whales, and growing my own algae to expose it to different
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on Oceanbites we are featuring Eliza Oldach. According to Ellie, “I study coastal communities, and try to understand the policies and decisions and interactions and adaptations that communities use to navigate an ever-changing world. Most of
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Jiwoon Park with a little photographic help from Ryan Tabata at the University of Hawaii. When asked about her research, Jiwoon wrote “Just like we need vitamins and minerals to stay
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring  @riley_henning  According to Riley, ”I am interested in studying small things that make a big impact in the ocean. Right now for my master's research at the University of San Diego,
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Gabby Stedman. Gabby is interested in interested in understanding how many species of small-bodied animals there are in the deep-sea and where they live so we can better protect them from
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Shawn Wang! Shawn is “an oceanographer that studies ocean conditions of the past. I use everything from microfossils to complex computer models to understand how climate has changed in the past
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Today we are highlighting some of our awesome new authors for  #WriterWednesday  Today we have Daniel Speer! He says, “I am driven to investigate the interface of biology, chemistry, and physics, asking questions about how organisms or biological systems respond
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Here at Oceanbites we love long-term datasets. So much happens in the ocean that sometimes it can be hard to tell if a trend is a part of a natural cycle or actually an anomaly, but as we gather more
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    Have you ever seen a lobster molt? Because lobsters have exoskeletons, every time they grow they have to climb out of their old shell, leaving them soft and vulnerable for a few days until their new shell hardens. Young, small
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    A lot of zooplankton are translucent, making it much easier to hide from predators. This juvenile mantis shrimp was almost impossible to spot floating in the water, but under a dissecting scope it’s features really come into view. See the
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    This is a clump of Dead Man’s Fingers, scientific name Codium fragile. It’s native to the Pacific Ocean and is invasive where I found it on the east coast of the US. It’s a bit velvety, and the coolest thing
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    You’ve probably heard of jellyfish, but have you heard of salps? These gelatinous sea creatures band together to form long chains, but they can also fall apart and will wash up onshore like tiny gemstones that squish. Have you seen
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    Check out what’s happening on a cool summer research cruise! On the  #neslter  summer transect cruise, we deployed a tow sled called the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System. This can take pictures of gelatinous zooplankton (like jellyfish) that would be
  • by oceanbites 1 year ago
    Did you know horseshoe crabs have more than just two eyes? In these juveniles you can see another set in the middle of the shell. Check out our website to learn about some awesome horseshoe crab research.  #oceanbites   #plankton   #horseshoecrabs 
WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com