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Sponges May Be A Secret Weapon Against Leukemia

28 September 2015, 2:28 pm EDT By Carrie Poppy Tech Times
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Harvard scientists isolate a sea sponge molecule that may help in the battle against cancer.  ( National Ocean Service )

Harvard researchers announced today that a sea sponge molecule might be a key tool in fighting leukemia.

A team of chemists and biologists has isolated the molecule, unceremoniously named cortistatin A, and discovered that when it's injected into mice with leukemia, cancer cells grow much less rapidly. That gave them the idea to synthesize cortistatin A and make it into a drug.

Cancer cells grow, in large part, because they act like stem cells, which don't have any particular identity within the body, and can serve virtually any bodily purpose. And like stem cells, cancer cells grow rapidly. The sea sponge molecule essentially reminds the cell of its original identity within the body, and it stops growing and returns to business as usual.

The molecule is also thought to be so specific in its function that it will likely limit side effects for the patient. Other molecules act on many genes at once, causing side effects, but this molecule targets the exact genes that are active in leukemia, while leaving other genes alone.

While this is very promising for cancer patients and their families, the drug wouldn't be available any time soon. According to the California Biomedical Research Association, it takes 12 years (and about $1.3 billion in research funds) for the average drug to make it from the research phase to the patient.

"It's a complex process to make [the synthetic version of the molecule] – 32 chemical steps," said Matthew Shair, professor of chemistry and chemical biology who led the team that made the discovery. But, he added, once the right recipe is found for making the drug, it could take half as many steps.

The finding is great news for cancer researchers, but for now, Shair tells Tech Times, "it is active [only] in leukemia and some other blood cancers." Other cancers may not find their enemy on the ocean floor. But with more than 300,000 people living with leukemia in the United States alone, it is reason to celebrate.

"This is the kind of thing you do science for," Shair said.

Via: Medical Xpress

 

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