By Hammad Khalid
Oceanic exploration has led to many novel discoveries, ideas, and theories, including many findings pertinent to the field of medicine. Oceans cover roughly 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and account for approximately 97 percent of Earth’s water. Naturally, much of the marine habitat is still uncharted territory; in fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 95 percent of the ocean has yet to be explored. Areas that are difficult to reach, such as deep-sea thermal vents and seabed sediments, have hardly been documented. As such, there is significant room for new medical discovery, even though resources derived from marine plant and animal species are already being utilized in numerous medicinal applications.
According to an ocean commission report, chemical and biological materials from marine organisms are either currently in use or are being developed to fight HIV, cancer, inflammation, tuberculosis, fungal infections and dengue fever. There are many specific examples of marine creatures successfully being used in medical research and testing for new drug treatments and therapies.
A species of Caribbean sponge, for instance, has been found to create compounds used in producing azidothymidine (AZT), an antiretroviral drug used in the treatment of the HIV retrovirus that causes AIDS. It has been discovered that a Caribbean gorgonian – a close relative of coral – produces a group of compounds with anti-inflammatory properties, some of which have been successfully used in gorgonian extract to manufacture an anti-wrinkle cream. Bugula neritina, a tentacled aquatic organism, yields a class of compounds known as bryostatins that are currently under investigation as anti-cancer agents and memory aids that could potentially be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Recent discoveries have gone so far as to prove the significance of continuing oceanic exploration for the advancement of medicine. Scientist veneration of marine organisms continues to increase, as the organisms are viewed as holding the key to future therapies and original medications. At the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Mass., scientists from all over the world conduct such biomedical research using marine life.
Federal grants to the Marine Biological Lab have more than doubled in recent years as the technology to visit previously unknown areas of the seas has developed. Harris Ripps, an ophthalmologist and neurobiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, conducts summer research at Woods Hole concerning retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative optical disease that causes severe vision impairment and blindness. Ripps and his colleague, John Dowling, a Harvard neurobiologist, have discovered that skates (a species of cartilaginous fish) are valuable models for studying the human retina because of their ability to detect light in light and dark conditions using only rods. This is significant because researchers are able to then use the skate as a model to focus on what goes wrong in rod cells that potentially causes blindness.
The horseshoe crab is another marine animal that has played a momentous role in bettering human life. In the 1950s, Marine Biological Lab scientist Frederick Bang made a critical discovery: the horseshoe crab had an uncanny ability to protect itself from swarms of marine bacteria because its blood clotted dramatically in response to bacteria. Scientists began to realize that this unique response could generate a more effective test for finding unwanted bacteria in vaccines. Whereas scientists had previously used the rabbit to test pharmaceuticals relatively slowly and inefficiently while causing harm to the rabbit, a test developed in the 1970s drew blood from the horseshoe crab without killing the animal and yielded results in as little as forty-five minutes. This test, named the limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) test after the compound in the horseshoe crab’s blood responsible for its remarkable clotting ability, is now used for the detection and analysis of bacterial endotoxins. The ability to detect and analyze endotoxins is especially valuable for the pharmaceutical industry because every drug that becomes FDA-certified must first pass a screening test for bacterial contamination. The LAL test has become so widespread that it is now the worldwide standard for bacterial contamination screening – every drug tested by the FDA, as well as surgical implants like prosthetics and pacemakers, must be tested using LAL.
The future of marine science with respect to medicinal advancements looks bright. There are many promising areas of potential discovery within marine ecosystems. Materials obtained from marine organisms have limitless applications in a diverse array of disciplines, ranging from medical treatments to nutritional supplements to pesticides to cosmetics. Drugs obtained from oceanic exploration are undoubtedly one of the most propitious avenues of marine science today.