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Finding Cures Under the Sea: The Search for New Medicines in Our Oceans

More than 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered in water, and beneath the silvery waves and blue-green tides is a complex world teeming with undiscovered plant and animal life. Deep-water habitats of the world's oceans represent a vastly untapped resource -- only a few hundred thousand marine organisms have been scientifically documented, which is hardly even the tip of the iceberg.


The vast majority of the oceans' potential cures have yet to be discovered.

Meanwhile -- while many who read the newsletter would agree that prescription drugs are extensively over-prescribed and over-used -- it is also true that some drugs are quite necessary and can help to save lives or ease suffering.

Researchers are well aware that many of the most powerful compounds from which some of the best drugs are made stem from nature's secrets … the jungles, the rainforests and also the oceans. In fact, about 75 percent of the top 20 hospital drugs and 20 percent of the top 100 most-prescribed drugs come from natural sources.

"Life originated in the oceans and has evolved over a much longer time than on land, so the diversity of life is far greater," said Professor Carlo Heip from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology.

And during their long evolution, marine life has adapted to, and is able to survive, some of the harshest environments -- extreme cold, pitch-black waters, and pressure levels that could easily crush a human. It is their unique ability to survive and even thrive against all odds that have researchers very interested in what lies beneath.

"I believe marine organisms can be used to eliminate disease and human suffering," said William Speck, pediatrician and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory. "We now have the technology to visit the deep ocean floor, and, because of DNA technology, to more deeply understand life and ourselves."

Medicines From the Deep

Many drugs that are used today -- like statin drugs used to lower cholesterol and aspirin -- have originated from natural sources. Now researchers are hoping to find compounds that could one day soon be used to treat everything from infectious diseases to cancer under the sea. Some of the most intriguing discoveries to date include:

Iscodermolide: A potent anti-tumor agent isolated from a deep-water sponge.

Topsentin: An anti-inflammatory substance from a deep-water sponge that could help treat arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and skin irritations, and protect against colon cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

Horboxazole: A substance made by an Indian Ocean sponge that can inhibit the growth of a wide range of tumor cell types. "It uses a different mechanism to any known drug, it's unlike anything else," said Tadeusz Molinski, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis.


Marine life can survive extreme conditions like cold, darkness and intense pressure, and many contain unique toxins to ward off enemies. Many of these compounds could have potential uses in treating human disease.

Discodermolide: A compound produced by a deep-water sponge from the Bahamas that is being tested as a potential cancer treatment.

Prialt: A drug approved in the United States that's made from the venom of the Pacific cone snail. More powerful than morphine, but without the addicting effects, the Pacific cone snail's venom was used to make this potent painkiller. NOTE: (taken from the drug's Web site) Severe psychiatric symptoms and neurological impairment may occur during treatment with PRIALT. Patients with a pre-existing history of psychosis should not be treated with PRIALT.

Other drugs made from ocean creatures have been around for some time, such as:

  • Compounds from sea cucumbers used in cancer treatments

  • Compounds from the stonefish used to lower blood pressure

  • Compounds from ocean snails used as a muscle relaxant

  • Certain sea anemones that are used to make a heart stimulant

Are the Ocean's Treasures Disappearing?

The biodiversity of the ocean may not be around forever. Overfishing has depleted large numbers of fish, such as sharks, which affects the entire food chain. Climate changes, pollution and the introduction of alien species (such as those carried from port to port by ships) are also affecting the ocean's biodiversity.

If the earth's oceans are to continue offering new discoveries and cures, its fragile ecosystem will have to be maintained.

"It's important to look not just at biodiversity but at how ecosystems function," said Dr. Adrianna Ianora, an ecologist at Stazione Zoologica, Anton Dohrn, Italy. "We need to know how biodiversity is maintained as the ocean is a very important resource for humanity."

In the meantime, researchers will continue exploring the depths and trying to decipher the mysteries it reveals.

"It's like a crossword puzzle where you have to find the clues," Molinski said. "Natural products engage your intellectual curiosity with a sense of wonder that comes from standing at the shores of new worlds."

Recommended Reading

Drugs with Potentially Psychotic Side Effects: Which Ones are They (& Who Deserves to Know)?

Adverse Drug Reactions on the Rise: What You Can Do to Shield Yourself from the Dangers of ADRs


NOAA Ocean Explorer

Medical News Today: Drugs From the Depths of the Ocean

Science Daily: Elusive Cancer Killer's Deep-sea Hideout Discovered After A Nearly 20-year Hunt

Lawrence Journal World

BBC News: Ocean Medicines Could be Lost

National Geographic News: Scientists Seek New Medicines From the Oceans

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