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September 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

An innovative collaboration between NRC researchers and scientists in Florida is searching for pharmaceutical treasure from the sea.

The drug you take one day for arthritis could be a compound discovered in a coral reef sponge in the Bahamas that was isolated from the sponge by scientists in Florida and shown to pack an anti-inflammatory punch by NRC researchers in Prince Edward Island.

Divers catalogue and examine marine samples collected during a dive for specimens in waters surrounding the Bahamas.
Divers catalogue and examine marine samples collected during a dive for specimens in waters surrounding the Bahamas.

That's the core vision of a unique new Canada-United States collaboration between researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and those at NRC's new Institute for Nutrisciences and Health (NRC-INH) in Charlottetown. The collaboration, recently signed into a Memorandum of Understanding, will see the groups pool their expertise in the hunt for new marine-derived pharmaceuticals.

"We're in the midst of a new age of Aquarius when it comes to the discovery of natural renewable sources of new drugs," says Dr. Michael Mayne, NRC-INH's Director of Research and the person spearheading the north-south collaboration. "Today, about 80-per cent of all the medicines we use were initially derived from land plants. But now pharmaceutical companies are desperately looking for new sources, and the oceans are an enormous untapped health resource."

The challenge in the search for these new marine-derived medicines is to first discover and isolate new chemicals, and secondly to determine their biological activity.

It's this two-step process that makes the PEI-Florida match a perfect tag team partnership, says Dr. Mayne.

"Florida is so rich with natural compounds from marine sources and FAU has expertise in isolating these chemicals. NRC-INH specializes in assaying, or testing the biological activity, of naturally derived chemicals. So to put it simply, they're the chemists and we're the biologists," he says.

Oceans are an untapped resource of natural, renewable products. Pictured here is a typical coral sample found during the expedition.
Oceans are an untapped resource of natural, renewable products. Pictured here is a typical coral sample found during the expedition.

NRC-INH is a satellite laboratory of NRC's Halifax-based Institute for Marine Biosciences. NRC-INH is presently ramping-up its staffing to what will be a total of 18 research scientists, and will move into its new facility this fall. The researchers and their teams focus on varying aspects of the roles that naturally-occurring compounds can play in improving human and animal health.

The North-South collaboration is the outgrowth of a NRC-FAU symposium, organized by Dr. Mayne and Dr. Russ Kerr, previously with FAU. This summer he joined the University of Prince Edward Island as a Canada Research Chair in marine natural products chemistry. The event, funded by the federal Enhanced Representation Initiative (see sidebar), involved three days of presentations and brainstorming between half-a-dozen researchers from each country.

Several specific research projects are already underway as a result of the symposium. The collaborative research is focused primarily on discovering compounds with either analgesic, (pain relief), or cancer-fighting properties. Marine-derived cancer drugs is area in which FAU researchers have already had success. This past summer the university announced a licensing agreement with a biosciences company for the commercialization of a new treatment for skin cancer. The active compound was discovered by Dr. Herbert Weissbach, one of the participants in the NRC-FAU collaboration.

NRC-INH's Dr. Junzeng Zhang pulls up a collection of marine specimens. Among these are sponges, algae and other marine plants and animals that will form the basis for future efforts to isolate medicinal compounds.
NRC-INH's Dr. Junzeng Zhang pulls up a collection of marine specimens. Among these are sponges, algae and other marine plants and animals that will form the basis for future efforts to isolate medicinal compounds.

Another joint NRC/FAU research project currently under discussion is to study the biological properties of novel, biologically-active compounds called conotoxins. These powerful neurotoxins are derived from the venom of the Marine Cone Snail.

"Conotoxins are an important area of research and drug development," notes NRC-INH researcher Dr. Jeffrey Zidichouski. Just recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved one conotoxin for the treatment of acute pain. We know that other versions of conotoxins occur in nature and research suggests that perhaps several hundred different subtypes of these compounds are yet to be discovered. However, we only know the actual biological mechanism of action of a select few of them."

In addition, to these collaborative efforts, this past June two NRC-INH researchers, Drs. Zidichouski and Junzeng Zhang accompanied a group of ten FAU scientists on a ten day natural products specimen collection trip in the Bahamas. The team dove at coral reefs and other locales collecting hundreds of specimens of sponges, algae and other marine plants and animals that will form the basis of future efforts to isolate medicinal compounds.

A team of divers returns with collected marine specimens.
A team of divers returns with collected marine specimens.

Only several months into this collaboration, Dr. Mayne says that it's already growing. The ocean-based effort recently received further Enhanced Representation Initiative funding to expand the collaboration to include a bevy of other Canadian and U.S. partners, including industry.

"My vision is to create a marine sciences cluster twinning roadmap between key players in Atlantic Canada and in southern Florida. The goal will be to not just discover new compounds but to get them to the proof-of-concept stage so that they're ready to go out the lab door and actually be developed into new pharmaceuticals," says Dr. Mayne.

A meeting planned for February 2007 will include representatives from NRC-INH, PEI-BioAlliance, as well as from the southeast chapter of BioFlorida, including the University of Miami, Scripps Florida and the Smithsonian Institute.

Forging cross-border science and business ties

Canada's Enhanced Representation Initiative is a partnership of eight federal departments and agencies working together to strengthen Canada's representation in the United States and expand opportunities for Canadian business. This initiative is enabling Canada to more effectively communicate to Americans our joint values and economic interdependence as well as demonstrating that Canadian business and institutions can be innovative and dynamic partners for their U.S. counterparts. Canada and the U.S. have the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world. In 2005, two-way trade in goods and services with the US totalled C$709.5 billion, with about C$1.9 billion worth of goods and services moving across the border each day.


Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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