Sea drugs breakthrough

An international team of scientists have cloned marine DNA in a bid to obtain a sustainable supply of exciting new drug leads from the sea.
The work is a world-first achievement designed to eliminate the ‘supply’ obstacle that has in the past stopped the development of many promising marine-derived drugs.

Professor Marcel Jaspars, from the Marine Natural Products Laboratory within the Chemistry Department at the University of Aberdeen, has been leading the research and has found that chemicals from marine organisms, such as sponges and seasquirts, show great promise in the treatment of cancer, inflammation and viral diseases.

The main problem has been obtaining a large-scale supply of these complex chemicals for worldwide use in an ecologically sustainable and economically viable way.

The methodology, developed by an international team of scientists from the University of Aberdeen, The London School of Pharmacy and The Australian Institute of Marine Science, heralds a new future for the development of such compounds.

“We have removed a major roadblock to the development of new drugs from the sea,” Professor Jaspars explained. “In my view, this is the most significant development in marine biotechnology in the last five years.”

Despite their potential, the main reason that there are few marine-derived drugs on the market is the considerable cost of developing a guaranteed supply for clinical use. “To produce a cancer-fighting chemical we might need to harvest 20,000 tonnes of a particular sponge per year to meet the global market need and this is ecologically unsound,” Professor Jaspars added.

The research team has provided the solution by taking the genes responsible for manufacturing a cancer-fighting chemical produced by a seasquirt and placing them in an easy-to-culture bacterium, which now produces the chemical. “Using this methodology, we need only one small collection of the seasquirt to obtain a long-term supply of the chemical, which has potential for the treatment of certain types of lymphoma,” Professor Jaspars added.

“The work succeeded in record time because of the unique collaboration between an ecologist, a biochemist, a chemist and a molecular biologist. The facilities at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and their access to the Great Barrier Reef to collect the seasquirt played a vital part in this study,” Professor Jaspars continued.

The work was performed by Professor Jaspars and Dr Paul Long of the London School of Pharmacy whilst they were both on sabbatical at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. The study forms part of a strategic collaboration with Drs Walt Dunlap and Chris Battershill at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Additional funding was provided by the College of Physical Sciences, the University of Aberdeen, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and the Leverhulme Trust.

The details of this research has been published in this month’s international journal ChemBioChem. Visit  for more details.

The team is now refining a universal cloning technique to produce other high-value marine products, particularly those with exceptional therapeutic potential for which clinical development has stalled from a lack of a renewable supply.