Debbie Nicholson

Do snails, clams, squids and friends hold the answer for lifesaving medications?

OHSU (Oregon Health & Science University) researchers, in collaboration with scientists from several other institutions including the University of Utah and the University of the Philippines, published two new research papers that illustrate how the next category of strong medications may currently be living at the bottom of the ocean floor. Both research papers concentrated on ocean-based mollusks that include snails, clams, squid, octopus and others.

Sea life studies aid researchers in several ways, including the development of new medications and biofuels. Because many of these ocean animal species have existed in harmony with their bacteria for millions of years, these benign bacteria have devised molecules that can affect body function without side effects and therefore better fight disease, according to the news release.

In order to accomplish these discoveries, a research partnership called the Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Cooperative Biodiversity Group was formed to examine microbial symbionts (a microorganism such as bacterium living in a symbiontic relationship in or on a host organism). They are looking at three marine mollusk groups as potential drug leads for central nervous system, cancer and antimicrobial areas, and as strains and enzymes for cellulosic biofuels production, noted by the group.

Dr. Margo G. Haygood, Ph.D., professor, Department of Science and Engineering, OHSU School of Medicine, marine microbiologist, led the group that also included The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Ocean Genome Legacy.

The first paper focuses on shipworms as a new antibiotic. Shipworms are a group of unusual saltwater clams with long, soft, naked bodies; they are marine bivalve molluscs in the family Teredinidae. They are notorious for boring into and eventually destroying wood that is immersed in sea water, including such structures as wooden piers, docks and ships; they drill passages by means of a pair of very small shells borne at one end, with which they rasp their way through and cause serious damage to hulls of ships.

The research revealed one form of bacteria utilized by shipworms secretes a powerful antibiotic which could show promise for fighting human disease.

Dr. Haygood stated "The reason why this line of research is so critical is because antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to human health.” She continues "Antibiotics have helped humans battle infectious diseases for over 70 years. However, the dangerous organisms these medications were designed to protect us against have adapted due to widespread use. Without a new class of improved antibiotics, older medications are becoming less and less effective and we need to locate new antibiotics to keep these diseases at bay. Bacteria that live in harmony with animals are a promising source.”

In the second research, the University of Utah led a team of researchers that included OHSU U and the University of the Philippines and examined cone snails that were gathered in the Philippines. Cone snails are also mollusks and are venomous and capable of stinging humans. Their venom contains many different toxins that vary in their effects; some are extremely toxic. There have been few previous studies to determine if bacteria associated with these snails might assist in drug development. The snails defend themselves by use of this toxic venom due this protection system it was believed they do not have make extra chemical defenses that may be made into human medications.

This new research had shown how the bacteria carried by the snails produce a chemical that can impact the function of nerve cells. These chemicals hold promise as a pain treatment.

Dr. Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., associate professor of medicinal medicine chemistry, University of Utah, Health Sciences Center, biochemist E.W. Schmidt Lab at the university and lead author of the paper commented "Mollusks with external shells, like the cone snail, were previously overlooked in the search for new antibiotics and other medications.”

In conclusion Dr. Schmidt says "This discovery tells us that these animals also produce compounds worth studying. It's hoped that these studies may also provide us with valuable knowledge that will help us combat disease."

Last year Dr. Diana Imhof, a professor and pharmaceutical chemist from the Pharmaceutical Institute of the University of Bonn in Germany, and fellow researchers conducted a study on the cone snails neurotoxins, called conotoxins. The research team was able to produce the specific venom chemically in vitro for use in additional analyses. The venom in question is a substance whose different amino acids are strung together like pearls.”

Dr. Imhof stated “Consequently, these toxins are of great interest for developing analgesics for chronically ill or terminal cancer patients for whom other medications can no longer be used. "The advantage of these conotoxins is that they do not cause dependency.”

The research was published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, published first online March12, 2012.

Numerous species of marine life produce chemicals that are being investigated or have already been used in the pharmaceutical industry.

Several sponges have been found to contain cancer fighting properties. Marine brown algae is used to treat a variety of conditions including arthritis, weight loss and heart disease.

According to the National Geographic News, as of 2009 almost 25 medications have come from marine life.

Slideshow; Drugs and Ocean Life