Reef may hold treatments, even cures, for serious diseases

The abundant compounds found at spots on the reef, like Hens and Chickens, could one day provide treatments and even cures from some of the most deadly diseases.
The abundant compounds found at spots on the reef, like Hens and Chickens, could one day provide treatments and even cures from some of the most deadly diseases.

“Save the reefs! Save the reefs!” 

What’s the big deal about saving the reefs? Why should we care about these “rainforests of the sea?”

If you live in the Keys one answer is obvious. All you have to do is drive down the Overseas Highway to see all the businesses that are directly or indirectly dependent on the ocean and nearby reefs. 

If you are a scuba diver or snorkeler the answer is obvious. Coral reefs are exciting and beautiful places to visit. 

But, let’s say you live far from the ocean and never intend to even dip your big toe in the briny blue. Why should you care? 

Well, you may think about clownfish, parrotfish, sea turtles, giant clams, crabs or other critters you see at the aquarium or in the movies. Everybody loves Nemo.

Or, if you may think about threats facing the ocean and reefs caused by climate change, ocean acidification and unsustainable fishing practices.

You probably don’t think about medicine.

Turns out, coral reefs are one of the world’s most prolific underwater pharmacies. 

Scientists have discovered that the reefs contain an abundance of micro-organisms and compounds produced by those organisms not found anywhere on earth. Many of these compounds show promise in holding cures for some of our most common and serious ailments including cancer.

The list is impressive.

Blue-green algae, commonly found around Caribbean mangroves, is the source of a toxin that is being used to treat small-cell lung cancer and has been endorsed by the National Cancer Institute for the treatment of melanoma.

Yondelis, the first new treatment in 30 years for soft-tissue sarcoma, is extracted from the sea squirt, a sac-like filter feeder.

The spiral tufted bryozoan (Bugula neritina), a colonial animal that grows upright in bushy, branching tufts is a source for the anti-cancer compound bryostatin.

Secosteroids, an enzyme used by soft corals to protect themselves from disease, is used to treat asthma, arthritis and other inflammatory disorders.

Bioactive molecules produced by marine invertebrates such as sea sponges, tunicates and sea hares have displayed potent anti-viral, anti-tumor and antibacterial activity.

Certain marine-based medicines for the treatment of lymphoma and ovarian, breast and prostate cancers have gone through clinical trials. Others show promise in the treatment of strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.

With just a few more years of research, it is likely that scientists will discover even more therapeutic secrets in the sea 

So, we return to the question: “What is the big deal about saving the reefs.” 

It is a very big deal. 

As stewards of our natural habitat we should protect coral reefs, in addition to what the reefs can offer medically, in their own right, Coral reefs are one of the most threatened marine systems. Scientists estimate that unless we take immediate action, we could lose up to 70 percent of coral reefs by 2050.

“An estimated 95 percent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored, so it’s possible that we might lose significant marine organisms without ever knowing they existed in the first place,” explains Stephanie Wear, a marine scientist on the Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team. “A devastating loss of biodiversity could mean that fewer species will be around for future medicinal research and biomedical studies.” 

By protecting marine environments through the creation of marine protected areas and the development of adaptation strategies, the Nature Conservancy is safeguarding marine biodiversity.

For more about how coral reef could hold the cures for some of the human race's most common and serious ailments see: 

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/habitats/oceanscoasts/explore/coral-reefs-and-medicine.xml or http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/habitats/oceanscoasts/explore/coral-reefs-and-cancer-save-the-reefs-to-save-lives.xml

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.