Can sea coral be used to treat cancer? Scientists discover ‘holy grail’ chemical in soft corals

Can sea coral be used to treat cancer? Scientists discover anti-cancer ‘holy grail’ chemical in soft coral reefs off the coast of Florida

  • A chemical called eleutherobin has been shown to have cytotoxic properties
  • It was first found in a rare coral off the coast of Australia in the 1990s
  • Since then scientists have not been able to find it in high enough quantities
  • Now, scientists have found the chemical in soft corals near Florida

Scientists have taken a huge step forward in the search for a new cancer treatment, after discovering a natural anti-cancer chemical in the ‘Holy Grail’ soft corals.

The chemical, called eleutherobin, was identified in a rare coral near Australia in the 1990s, but since then scientists have not been able to find it in large enough quantities to be used in a laboratory.

Now, researchers from the University of Utah have discovered that the elusive chemical is also produced by soft corals that live off the coast of Florida.

The team now hopes to recreate the soft corals in the lab, hoping to produce the chemical in the large quantities needed for rigorous testing.

One day, the chemical could be used as a new cancer-fighting tool, according to the team.

Soft corals use euthyropin as a defense against predators, as the chemical disrupts the cytoskeleton – a major scaffold in cells.

However, laboratory studies have shown that the compound can also inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

Growing up in Florida, Dr. Paul Sisica, the study’s first author, suspected that the area’s corals might contain an elusive chemical.

Dr. Scesa brought small live samples of corals from Florida to a lab in Utah, where the real fishing began.

While previous studies have suggested that erythropin is made by symbiotic organisms that live inside coral reefs, researchers suspected that this was not the case.

“It just didn’t make sense,” Dr. Sesesa said. “We knew that corals have to make eleutrophin.”

Having grown up in Florida, Dr. Paul Sisica (pictured), the study's first author, suspected the area's corals might contain an elusive chemical.

Having grown up in Florida, Dr. Paul Sisica (pictured), the study’s first author, suspected the area’s corals might contain an elusive chemical.

Dr. Scesa brought small live samples of corals from Florida to a lab in Utah, where the real fishing began.

Dr. Scesa brought small live samples of corals from Florida to a lab in Utah, where the real fishing began.

In the lab, the researchers set out to understand whether the genetic code of corals carried instructions for making the compound.

This proved difficult, because scientists didn’t know what the instructions for making the chemical should look like.

“It’s like going into the dark and looking for an answer where you don’t know the question,” said Professor Eric Schmidt, co-lead author of the study.

To address this issue, the researchers looked for regions of corals’ DNA that resembled genetic instructions for similar compounds from other species.

Then they programmed the lab-grown bacteria to follow the corals’ DNA instructions for soft corals, and found that they were able to replicate the first steps of making the chemical.

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According to the researchers, this proves that soft corals are a source of eleutherobin.

The team now hopes to fill in the missing steps from the chemical’s recipe, and try to replicate it in the lab.

“I hope to hand these things over to the doctor one day,” Dr. Sesesa added.

“I think of it as moving from the ocean floor to the bench to the bed.”

Corals expel small marine algae when the sea temperature rises, causing them to turn white

Corals have a symbiotic relationship with tiny marine algae called “zooxanthellae” that live inside and feed on them.

When the sea surface temperature rises, coral expels colorful algae. Loss of algae causes them to bleach and turn white.

This bleaching condition can last up to six weeks, and while corals can recover if the temperature drops and the algae return, highly bleached corals die and become covered with algae.

Either way, this makes it difficult to distinguish healthy corals from dead corals from satellite images.

This bleaching has recently killed up to 80 percent of coral reefs in some areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

Bleaching events of this type are occurring worldwide at four times more often than before.

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  The Great Barrier Reef's corals underwent two consecutive bleaching events, in 2016 and earlier this year, raising experts' concerns about the reefs' ability to survive global warming.

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The Great Barrier Reef’s corals underwent two consecutive bleaching events, in 2016 and earlier this year, raising experts’ concerns about the reefs’ ability to survive global warming.

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