Exploring Unknown Deep-Sea Biomedical Resources

Scientists from the new state-funded Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology will spend the next two weeks exploring never before seen sections of deepwater coral reefs rich with life off Florida's east coast and the Keys. The team, with members from Harbor Branch Oceanographic and Florida Atlantic University, will be using Harbor Branch's Johnson-Sea-Link I (JSLI) submersible and scuba in a search for marine creatures that produce chemicals with the potential to cure human diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer's.

Amazingly, vast stretches of vibrant seafloor lay unexplored just a few miles from major ports such as Miami, and the team expects to make important discoveries as they tap these previously hidden biomedical treasure troves for the first time. FAU's Department of Ocean Engineering has been using an unmanned autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to map the area and has discovered some of the promising sites that will be explored using the submersible.

Similar expeditions by Harbor Branch off Florida and around the world have already yielded numerous chemicals that show great promise in fighting cancer, infections, and other afflictions. One, a compound called discodermolide, has proven an effective cancer cell killer, even in tumors that are resistant to Taxol©, one of the best treatments currently available for breast and other cancers. It is now in the first phase of human clinical trials as a treatment for many forms of solid malignancies such as pancreatic cancer.

The expedition, the first for the Center of Excellence, will depart from Harbor Branch's Ft. Pierce campus on May 20 aboard the institution's Seward Johnson research vessel headed for deepwater reefs off the coast of North Florida. The team will then work its way south to Ft. Lauderdale exploring areas of rock and reef bottom that appear promising based on contours identified with sonar maps. From Ft. Lauderdale south through the Keys, the group will continue exploring areas as deep as 3,000 feet using the submersible, but will also use scuba to collect invertebrates from shallower reefs. They will return to Harbor Branch on June 2.

The team will use the submersible to video and photograph the sea life they encounter and to collect small samples of such organisms as sponges, soft corals and cone snails for further study. The scientists will test the potential of chemicals produced by these animals to fight disease first through simple experiments on board the ship and later with more elaborate tests in their respective labs. For instance, chemicals will be tested to determine if they kill cancer cells or effect the electrical activity within neurological cells, which can be an indicator of potential to treat pain or neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's.

Those chemicals that show promise will then undergo intensive studies to determine their chemical structure and the biological activity that gives them disease-fighting properties. Chemicals that continue to show promise throughout this process would ultimately be licensed to pharmaceutical companies for possible development as new drugs.
Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology

The Center of Excellence was created with $10 million in state funding in 2003. It is based at FAU and combines the expertise of Harbor Branch, Florida International University, Nova Southeastern University, the Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce, and several private companies.

The overall goal for the Center of Excellence is to promote the discovery, development, and commercialization in Florida of new medicines and other products. Center funding is intended as seed money to further expand Florida's emerging marine biotechnology industry over the next two years with the goal of attracting longer-term funding from federal and commercial sources.

Besides funding one expedition per year, Center of Excellence money is being used to:
    1) support graduate students that will expand the biotechnology workforce

    2) design and build a high-definition camera system that can be carried on an AUV to map new seafloor sites

    3) to purchase equipment that will greatly enhance member institutions' ability to rapidly and accurately analyze the pharmaceutical potential of new chemical compounds.
To learn more visit www.floridabiotech.org

© 2005, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution