Sun Sentinel: FAU hunting for sea sponges that fight cancer June 1, 2015

By Ken Kaye
Sun Sentinel

Think of it as drawing medicine from the sea.

Florida Atlantic University scientists have developed a sophisticated device that allows them to inspect ocean reefs and collect sponges with chemicals to fight an array of diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer.

Scientists have long known that plants and animals from the sea produce compounds that can combat viruses, heart disease, pain, and other ailments. For the past three decades, FAU scientists have zeroed in on sponges, which are living animals known as invertebrates.

Different sponges produce different chemicals. For instance, sponges off Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale were found to have chemicals that fight pancreatic cancer. Another sponge, which makes its home in deep ocean waters, has been used in the treatment of breast cancer. A third sponge that lives off Fort Pierce and in the Keys has been used to fight ovarian cancer.

How and why the sponges produce the beneficial chemicals is largely unknown. But it’s suspected the compounds aid in their survival, either to ward off enemies or enhance their offspring.

“We don’t know why they’re making the chemicals, we just take advantage of the fact they are doing it,” said Amy Wright, a research professor at Boca Raton-based FAU.

FAU’s new $175,000 contraption, basically an underwater vacuum cleaner, was used this month for the first time in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s incredibly cool,” said Wright. “If you find something you want, you apply a strong vacuum to bring up samples, and that helps science.”

Called a tool sled, the device is part of a larger robotic water vehicle equipped with video to spot and document ocean reefs. The robotic vehicle is tethered to a 96-foot research ship.

After the sled approaches a reef, scientists lower what looks like the muzzle of a vacuum cleaner to suck up a sponge and place it in a special basket.

The chemicals from the sponges then are extracted, analyzed and broken down into a form they can be used to develop drugs to fight specific medical problems.

“It’s hard to predict which sponge has the components for the treatment you’re looking for, so we try to collect as many different sponges as we can,” Wright said.

FAU previously deployed submersibles with a person inside to collect more than 30,000 sponge samples.

To make the process more efficient, the FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce designed and built the tool sled with help from FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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