The technique worked perfectly, and on the first submersible dive targeting an area that fit the profile, they found the sponge. "You know, you have these hypotheses, but when it is actually there, it just floors you that the hypothesis worked," says Wright, "We were really excited. I was just dancing around."
The sponge was found in water over 1,000 feet deep in an area the researchers often refer to as the "dead zone," because it is generally characterized by bare rock and very low biodiversity. The sponge, which can grow to about the size of a softball, had eluded researchers for so long because they generally avoid this area in favor of exploring more diverse habitats.
Wright predicts that the quantity of the sponge collected on the expedition using the submersible should be enough to carry the team through the full multi-year drug discovery process, possibly even to the first phase of human trials. "I never thought I would see that much of the sponge ever," says Wright, "Now we have enough to move forward."
If the chemical continues to show promise as the research process progresses, it would eventually be licensed to a pharmaceutical company, which would take the compound through clinical trials. A key step before that could happen would be for HARBOR BRANCH and its collaborators to develop a method to sustainably produce the chemical without having to collect it from wild sponges, which would be both economically and ecologically unfeasible. Possible methods would be raising the sponge through aquaculture, producing it synthetically, or, if the chemical turns out to be produced by a microorganism within the sponge, raising cultures of that microorganism. The full process of turning the chemical into a commercially available cancer treatment would likely take more than a decade.
The mystery sponge's hideout was found on an expedition to the Bahamas that covered some 1,300 mi
Contact: Mark Schrope
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution