Scientists are looking for the "holy grail" of pharmaceutical medicine in the most unlikely places. Researchers at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic
Institution are studying cancer-fighting chemicals produced within a very specific type of sea sponge. The sponge was found in water over 1,000 feet
deep of the coast of the Bahamas in an area the researchers often refer to as the "dead zone," because it is generally characterized by bare rock
and very low biodiversity. The sponge, which can grow to about the size of a softball, had eluded researchers for so long because they generally avoid
this area in favor of exploring more diverse habitats.
Scientists are collecting sponge samples and studying them at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. The first step is to extract the sponge's
chemicals. "I like to call it a sponge daiquiri because we take the sponge and put it in a blender with alcohol and we mix it up and that's an
extract," says Shirley Pomponi, vice president and director of research at Harbor Branch. Then, they test whether the extract kills cancer cells. But
why do sponges make cancer-fighting chemicals in the first place? Mostly, to defend themselves against predators, which they can't run away from,
because they're sessile. One sponge chemical was found, in one test, to be hundreds of times more potent than a widely used treatment for breast
cancer. The sponge was so elusive it took scientists 20 years to find it again. Other sponge chemicals are being explored as possible treatments for
diseases and ailments such as Alzheimer's disease, malaria, and arthritis.
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