Powerful anti-cancer chemical hidden in Kiwi sea sponge
A dull-looking Kiwi sea sponge could provide hope for breast and lung cancer sufferers, Victoria University researchers have found.
The potential drug, produced by the Mycale henscheli sponge, stopped the growth of lung tumours by up to 90 per cent, research published in the Molecular Cancer Therapeutics journal showed.
It was far more effective than similar tumour drugs on the market, biology professor John Miller said.
"In some cases, there was even a decrease in tumour volume."
As the sponge was found mostly in Marlborough's Pelorus Sound, the chemical was named "peloruside".
Miller said the potential drug interfered with a cell's internal mechanisms as it tried to divide itself – which cancers do prolifically compared to normal cells – and so killed it.
As well as being more effective, the natural compound appeared to have fewer side-effects on the mice in the study than current drugs being prescribed.
"The tumour cells develop resistance to [other cancer drugs], but peloruside isn't very susceptible to that, so that's good," Miller said. "But you never know until you try it in humans, that's the problem."
After first seeing the chemical's effect after it was found in 1998, Miller and co-researcher Peter Northcote realised it could be useful in treating what are known as solid tumours. These were typically found in lung, breast and ovarians cancers, Northcote said. "It was quite exciting at the time."
Other toxins and substances from the sponge have shown promise for other medical research, including a treatment for a muscle condition currently being investigated by other Victoria University researchers.
"Sea sponges don't move, so they need other ways to defend themselves," Northcote said.
Making the chemical in high enough quantities was another issue that needed to be tackled. Previously they had farmed the sponge in aquaculture facilities, but pests had proved a problem, he said.
The team were currently seeking Health Research Council funding to see how they might manufacture the potential drug in commercial quantities.
Peloruside would also need to undergo the three phases of human trials, with the backing of a pharmaceutical company, potentially a 10-year process. But Miller hoped to one day see the uniquely Kiwi sea sponge help cancer patients worldwide.
"It's pure New Zealand. Nobody's ever discovered it anywhere else."