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Anti-cancer compounds discovered in sea corals

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Daily Herald | May 28, 2022

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

In this July 20, 2010, file photo, a soft coral and a brittle star, which were collected from the Gulf of Mexico, are displayed at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD.

Preserving the diversity of animals on the Earth is extremely important because they contain a variety of potentially human-life saving compounds.

That’s what University of Utah professor Eric Schmidt said after his research team found soft sea corals contain a promising anti-cancer compound.

Researchers have been looking for a natural chemical for treating cancer since the 1970s, Schmidt said. Now they have discovered that easy-to-find soft corals make the elusive compound.

“This is the first time we have been able to do this with any drug lead on Earth,” Schmidt said. “Our advance does not treat cancer, but what it does is provide the first step to really robustly supply these compounds.”

Schmidt, professor of medicinal chemistry at U of U Health and one of the lead researchers, said identifying the compounds allowed his team to find the DNA code in the animal. That then enabled them to carry out the first steps of recreating the soft coral chemical in a laboratory — something that has never been done before.

This, he said, opens the door to more findings which could possibly produce the compound in amounts needed for extensive testing.

Another lead researcher and author, Paul Scesa, grew up in Florida where he spent a lot of time in the ocean.

Finding the compound — which ended up near his childhood playground — was one thing, Scesa said. Making a synthetic version in the laboratory was another.

“It’s like going into the dark and looking for an answer where you don’t know the question,” Schmidt said.

The researchers found regions of coral DNA resembling genetic instructions for similar types of compounds from other species, according to a U of U Health press release.

“After programming bacteria grown in the lab to follow coral DNA instructions specific to the soft coral, the microorganisms were able to replicate the first steps of making the potential cancer therapeutic,” reads the release.

The research showed both that soft corals are the source of eleutherobin, a chemical shown to have anti-cancer properties and researchers could make the compound synthetically in a lab.

“My hope is to one day hand these to a doctor,” Scesa said.

Soft corals have thousands of drug-like compounds, including anti-inflammatory and antibiotic agents, Schmidt said. While potentially life-saving, the findings were not altogether shocking — nature is full of millions of species known to carry healing properties, including worms, snakes and even spiders.

“Half of all life-saving FDA approved drugs originate in nature,” Schmidt said. “What we are doing right now is working to make sure these compounds, using microbes in the lab, will provide enough to perform the full evaluation to see if they are truly promising in the fight against cancer.”

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