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Rare Coral Reveals Powerful Compound

November/December 1998

The same chemical that protects a rare type of marine coral from predators may also prove to be a potent medicine for humans in the fight against cancer.

The chemical, eleutherobin, was extracted from an unusual-looking coral (Eleutherobia) found by William Fenical during a diving expedition several years ago in a shallow bay called Bennett's Shoal, located off the coast of Australia. Fenical is director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA. He was working in Australia with the support of an NSF grant to gain a better understanding of how chemical substances, rather than shells or sharp spines, protect certain marine organisms from their natural predators.

What Fenical unexpectedly discovered during one of his dives was a colony of eleutherobia--tiny, yellow coral resembling cheese puffs--clinging to the underwater rocks. While he had never seen this type of soft coral before, Fenical was quick to take some samples for closer analysis in his lab back at the Scripps Institute. A few months later, Fenical's post-doctoral student Thomas Lindel extracted a chemical solution from the coral and tested its effect on human cancer cells. The result of this test revealed that eleutherobia was no ordinary coral. "The stuff was so extraordinarily potent that it was dangerous to handle," Fenical said. "You could dilute it a million-fold and it still killed cells very powerfully."

Further study by the scientists revealed that eleutherobin is able to bind to a protein material within cellular structures called microtubules and make them extremely rigid, a process that prevents cancerous cells from dividing and multiplying. Eleutherobin has since been patented and licensed by Bristol-Myers Squibb and is currently undergoing testing by the pharmaceutical company as a drug to fight breast and ovarian cancer.

Although it is still uncertain whether eleutherobin will prove itself viable as a safe and effective cancer drug for humans, Fenical points out that the marine environment is a vast resource of plants and animals that have potentially therapeutic value to humans.

"Eleutherobin is a perfect example of how basic science often translates into practical discoveries," says Fenical. "By understanding chemicals that form natural functions in nature, we can use them to help mankind."


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