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Researchers discover potential ‘anti-cancer’ chemical in sea corals

Scientists say they've been able to synthesize the chemical in a lab in order to begin large-scale testing.

(CN) — After searching for more than two decades, scientists have uncovered the source of a natural chemical compound that may help treat cancer patients: sea corals.

In a pair of studies published Monday in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, researchers from the University of Utah Health and the University of California, San Diego announced the discovery of the compound in soft corals, corals the scientists say are “easy-to-find.”

By identifying the coral, the researchers were able to analyze its DNA and synthesize the chemical in a lab. 

“This is the first time we have been able to do this with any drug lead on Earth,” says Eric Schmidt, professor of medicinal chemistry at U of U Health.

The scientists said “the advance opens the possibility of producing the compound in the large amounts needed for rigorous testing and could one day result in a new tool to fight cancer.”

Although soft corals have several chemical compounds that can be used for treatment of medical conditions, they have been difficult to gather in large amounts. Using synthesis, researchers hope to change that and create more of the chemical compounds in a lab.

Sea corals use these various chemicals to dissuade predators. Using a synthesized version, however, may help scientists treat cancer patients.

“These compounds are harder to find but they’re easier to make in the lab and easier to take as medicine,” said Schmidt.

Research on the rare chemical compound called eleutherobin began in the 1990s when researchers discovered it in a rare type of coral found near the coast of Australia. 

“The chemical disrupts the cytoskeleton, a key scaffold in cells, and soft corals use it as a defense against predators,” researchers said in a statement. “But laboratory studies showed that the compound was also a potent inhibitor of cancer cell growth.”

Since then, scientists have tried to find a more readily available source of the chemical. It wasn’t until recently when it was discovered in sea corals off the coast of Florida. For decades, researchers believed the chemical was created by symbiotes living inside the corals.

“It didn’t make sense,” said Paul Scesa, postdoctoral scientist and first author. “We knew that corals must make eleutherobin.”

Scesa said he is optimistic about being able to synthesize the compound in a lab and use it to help cancer patients.

“My hope is to one day hand these to a doctor,” says Scesa. “I think of it as going from the bottom of the ocean to bench to bedside.”

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