Potent new compound from blue-green algae may help treat, elucidate nerve disorders

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HONOLULU, Dec. 19 - Amid a growing list of biologically useful chemicals from the sea, a newly discovered compound - kalkitoxin - stands out for its potential to help researchers understand nerve function, which could someday lead to new treatments for pain, epilepsy and possibly stroke. The finding was reported here today at the 2000 International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies.

The weeklong scientific meeting, held once every five years, is hosted by the American Chemical Society, in conjunction with its counterparts in Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

Lead investigator William Gerwick, Ph.D., a pharmacy professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says the neurotoxin - a metabolite in cyanobacteria - is fundamentally new in both structure and potency.

"What we've found is a spectacularly potent neurotoxin, meaning kalkitoxin can kill neurons," explained Gerwick. "And when a compound is very toxic, it's working by a very specific mechanism." He and his collaborators hope to use that mechanism "to dissect neurochemical pathways and to understand how drugs affect them," he said.

Their discovery began "in an absolutely beautiful bay" of the Caribbean island of Curacao, near Venezuela, Gerwick said. "In 1994, we found a collection of cyanobacteria growing like hairs off the sea floor. We brought several liters of it back to Oregon for testing." Marine cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, are most familiar to many people as "pond scum."

Back in the laboratory, Gerwick's team ground up samples of the simple plant and tested extracts on brine shrimp and fish. One extract proved toxic even in concentrations of parts per billion. The researchers named the as-yet-mysterious compound after the island's Kalki Bay

Contact: Charmayne Marsh
American Chemical Society

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