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Sea Creature Joins Cancer Fight

Extract derived from sea cucumbers shown to block growth of deadly cells

SUNDAY, May 13 (HealthScout) -- Researchers seeking treatments for cancer are leaving no stone -- or sand pebble -- unturned as they look to the sea for answers.

Make that sea cucumbers in the case of Thomas Adrian, a Creighton University professor of physiology.

Adrian and colleague Peter Collin, a researcher with Coastside Research, a marine drug discovery company in Stonington, Me., have discovered a anti-cancer extract derived from the deep-sea creature that has been shown in animal tests to block the growth of several human cancer cells, including pancreatic cancer.

Although the research is very preliminary, it holds promise, Adrian says.

"These slow-moving creatures have been around for 500 million years and have evolved sophisticated mechanisms for dealing with bacteria and the risk of being eaten by larger creatures," Adrian says.

The extract works to inhibit what are called lipoxygenase enzymes. Similar compounds have been in development by the pharmaceutical industry, but Adrian says those offered by the sea cucumber hold more promise.

"The agents in the marine organisms seem to be extremely potent and completely non-toxic, so they have a big advantage in that respect."

There are more than 1,000 species of sea cucumbers and because many can be found in abundance right off the Maine coast, the research was that much easier for the scientists.

Christopher Widnell, scientific program director of research for the American Cancer Society, says the ocean represents a vast, untapped resource for potential pharmaceuticals.

Widnell says the old age of many organisms is often the key to their powers. "These organisms have developed clever ways of doing things."

For example, he says, some organisms produce toxins that have a unique way of delivering proteins into cells, which is not easy to do.

The fact that the sea cucumber extract offers hope for a new treatment for pancreatic cancer is particularly welcome because that cancer is among the deadliest.

The American Cancer Society lists it as the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the United States. Approximately 18 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer survive for one year after diagnosis, and less than 4 percent survive five years.

"Pancreatic cancer certainly has one of the worst prognoses, so any research that offers promise is a very good thing," says Widnell.

Adrian and the other researchers are currently trying to purify and identify the precise active agents that are at work in the sea cucumbers. They say they're still far from testing on humans, but they remain hopeful.

Adrian's research is supported by the Chemoprevention Branch of the National Cancer Institute, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the Maine Center for Innovation in Biomedical Technology and the Maine Technology Institute.

What To Do

You can read more about marine biology in these HealthScout stories.

And visit the American Cancer Society for more on pancreatic cancer.

SOURCES: Interviews with Thomas Adrian, Ph.D., professor of physiology, Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.; Christopher Widnell, Ph.D., scientific program director of research, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.; Creighton University press release
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