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Coral Reefs and Cancer: Save the Reefs to Save Lives

By Kerry Crisley

Mention coral reefs, and there’s a good chance that most people will think of clownfish and bright pink sea fans. But there’s a contingent out there that sees something else: hope. The hope that new compounds can be uncovered in the world’s reefs that can treat people with cancer, diabetes, AIDS, heart disease and other illnesses.

One such person is Dr. Bruce Chabner, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Director of Clinical Research at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cancer Center. We spoke with Dr. Chabner on the role coral reefs play in people’s health. What is it about the ocean – and coral reefs in particular – that make it a valuable source of medical research?

Dr. Chabner: There’s an enormous amount of life in our oceans, particularly in coral reefs. Where you have high concentrations of different organisms living together in one place, you have a treasure trove of unique micro-organisms – and compounds produced by those organisms – not found elsewhere on Earth. How does it all work? How does one go from looking at, say, a sea squirt to creating a new drug?

Dr. Chabner: We start by studying the organism. How does it grow? How does it defend itself? How does it survive in its surroundings? When we’ve found the specific compounds that contribute to its survival we can see where it might be effective in treating certain types of cancers. The drug Ara-C, for example, is the backbone of chemotherapy for leukemia and lymphoma. That was derived from a sea sponge in the Caribbean.
Do we have to keep harvesting the reefs to maintain supplies of these medicines?

Dr. Chabner: That’s the best part; in most cases, no. Once the compound has been isolated it can often be synthesized and created in the lab. What’s important is that we discover it while it’s still there in our oceans. I’ve read that marine-based drugs are being tested that show tremendous promise in the treatment of strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. What else is happening now? Are there new drugs in the works?

Dr. Chabner:
Yes. Several new medicines for the treatment of lymphoma and ovarian, breast and prostate cancers have gone through their clinical trial phases and are close to receiving FDA approval. And equally exciting, other marine-based medicines are showing tremendous promise in the treatment of strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. A new report by the World Resources Institute shows that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are in trouble. What does that mean for the medical community?

Dr. Chabner: First, I firmly believe that coral reefs should be protected in their own right so we can be good stewards of our natural habitat. And also, we have only scratched the surface of what the reefs can offer medically. The sea could very well hold the building blocks of drugs that could treat, or even cure, cancer. We don’t know. But if we lose the reefs, we’ll never find out.

Kerry Crisley is an Associate Director for Strategic Communications at The Nature Conservancy with a focus on our marine work. She writes this in memory of her aunts, Lorraine and Helen.

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