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Ed Yeates ReportingA creature that lives in the sea serves as a unique host to a microbe, one that could lead to a new way to fight cancer. The University of Utah study could open a big door for the development of natural product drugs.
From the sea comes life. And now, perhaps more than ever, the possibility of life-saving compounds from the smallest of microbes.
Dr. Eric Schmidt, University of Utah College of Pharmacy: "This is a microorganism that has not been grown outside of its host so far, and it's found all over in the oceans in tunics otherwise known as sea squirts."
The sea squirt Dr. Eric Schmidt talks of has formed a unique association with a little microbe. While you can't see it with our camera, many colonies of the bacteria are growing all over within little pockets.
Dr. Schmidt: "The key to the research in these labs is not so much that the sea squirt itself is a cure or a treatment - but what it can lead to."
Small peptides produced by the microbes, which have partnered with the sea squirts, may prove useful in treating some cancers.
Dr. Schmidt: "We were interested in it because these organisms also contain a lot of compounds that show toxicity to cancer cell lines."
But instead of going to the oceans and trying to collect all the organisms, Dr. Schmidt and his team have pinpointed gene pathways that can be transferred to other bacteria easily grown in the lab - like ecoli. In other words, e-coli could be genetically engineered to make modified compounds, which could then be used in an anti-cancer drug.
Dr. Schmidt is both an oceanographer who collects his own samples and a medicinal chemist, heading up the U's research project.
Schmidt says "the oceans and coral reefs are like rainforests - full of all kinds of natural chemicals that could potentially treat human disease."