Under the sea

Oceans make up 70% of the earth’s surface and yet we still know so little about them. It hasn’t been until recently with advancements in diving technology that scientists and oceanographers have been able to study what is below the waves. It is said that oceans may contain as many as two million undiscovered species. Over the past 20 years, scientists have been able to extract 20,000 new biochemical substances from marine life. The possibilities for future development of drugs from marine life to help fight cancer and asthma or stop wrinkles is just beginning. Strap on the scuba gear and let’s go take a look at what’s under the sea.

Using chemicals made from marine animals has been going on for some time. It is rumored that Nero’s mother added a poison made from a shell-less mollusk called a “sea hare” to the food of relatives so he could become emperor of Rome. It is also said that the Romans used the barbs of stingrays to treat toothaches, while warriors on the Hawaiian island of Maui dipped their spears in a lethal tidal pool coral to kill their enemies.

Once something is discovered in the sea, there is no guarantee that it will work. There could be harmful side effects or the initial results may have no real world usage. Out of the hundred or so compounds that reach the pre-clinical testing stage, only one or two actually yield results and it could be five to 30 years before the testing is complete. It’s through diligence that new drugs are developed.

One drug that is currently in development in the United States is called Prialt. Taken from the venom that the Pacific cone snail distributes through its stingers to paralyze and kill other fish and humans, the drug is similar to morphine. It can be used to block the nerve pathways and eliminate pain. It is more powerful than morphine, however, and doesn’t have the addiction and mind-altering side effects. Another drug that is in development in Canada is based on a substance found in a Pacific sponge. The drug is being looked at as a treatment for asthma that could be swallowed instead of inhaled. These are some of the ocean medicines that could be available in the future.

There are some ocean creatures that have been around for years and have a proven track record in medicine. These include:

  • Certain types of snails that yield a muscle relaxant
  • Certain types of red seaweed that provide a anticoagulant
  • Certain types of sea anemones that provide a heart stimulant
  • Certain compounds from the stonefish, the most venomous fish in the world, which are used to lower blood pressure
  • Certain types of sponges that provide anti-inflammatory and antibiotic substances
  • Certain compounds from sea cucumbers and quahaug that are used in cancer treatments
  • Cod and shark liver oils, which provide great sources of vitamins A and D
  • A certain substance from shark cartilage that has been used to restrict the growth of body tumors
  • Kelp, which heals wounds by removing harmful bacteria

We are only just beginning to discover the wonders that are under the sea. With new diving technology comes the ability to go deeper and longer underwater than before. With so many of our older drugs becoming ineffective, that’s good news.