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Elusive cancer killer's deep-sea hideout discovered after a nearly 20-year hunt

In 1984, HARBOR BRANCH scientists exploring deep waters off the Bahamas in one of the institution's Johnson-Sea-Link submersibles discovered a small piece of sponge that harbored a chemical with a remarkable ability to kill cancer cells in laboratory tests. Despite almost two decades of searching, though, the group was never able to find enough of the sponge to fully explore its potential. But now that process can finally begin because, thanks to some creative detective work, the team has found the animal's secret hiding place and collected enough of it to support years of intense research.

"It's just amazing," says Amy Wright, director of HARBOR BRANCH Biomedical Marine Research, of the sponge she has been on a career-long quest to find. "This is our next cure, I know it's our next cure."

A chemical produced within the sponge, which has not yet been given an official name, has proven in one test of cancer-fighting potential to be about 400 times more potent than Taxol, a widely used treatment for breast and other forms of cancer. As important, preliminary experiments have also shown the compound to be fairly non-toxic to normal cells.

But the limited amount of the sponge initially collected was not enough to carry the team through the long process of developing a potential medical treatment, which involves careful study of exactly how a chemical kills cancer cells and of its chemical structure. "Since 1984 it has been on our target list for every dive," says Wright, who first studied the compound as a postdoctoral fellow at HARBOR BRANCH during the '80s.

On various expeditions over the years, scientists found only tiny pieces of the sponge, then last year two slightly larger pieces, but still they did not have enough to do the required research. So, in preparation for a cruise this year to the Bahamas that ran from Oct. 9 through the 24th, Wright and her team used clues from where each piece had been collected to put togethe
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Contact: Mark Schrope
schrope@hboi.edu
772-216-0390
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
27-Oct-2003


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