Researchers at the University of Western Cape (UWC) are currently investigating whether sea sponges – found exclusively in South African waters – hold the key to developing medication to fight cancer and malaria.
A review article invited for publication in the South African Journal of Science this week, overviewed how a potent chemical substance produced by a group of sponges – known as latrunculid sponges – could possess not only anti-cancer and anti-malaria properties but anti-microbial properties as well.
The article was authored by Professor Michael Davies-Coleman (Dean of the Natural Sciences Faculty at UWC), Professor Edith Antunes, Professor Denzil Beukes and Dr Toufiek Samaai, and reviews nearly a quarter of a century of work on latrunculid sponges and their chemistry as part of a marine biodiscovery programme.
A small number of sponge natural products have serendipitously shown potential as pharmaceuticals (eg novel anti-cancer drugs), the paper states.
The problem with these very toxic chemical compounds, however, is that they don’t just target cancer cells or malaria parasites, they are toxic to normal cells making them unsuitable as pharmaceuticals in their natural form.
The work underway at UWC, led by Professors Antunes and Beukes, is to try and find nanoparticles which could deliver these marine chemical compounds directly to cancer cells so that they do not adversely affect normal cells.
“Research into the taxonomy, chemistry and microbiology of latrunculid sponges is the most comprehensive, multidisciplinary investigation of any group of African marine sponges,”said Professor Davies-Coleman, the original leader of the marine biodiscovery team.
“Due to the possible biomedical applications of marine sponges and other marine invertebrates, our article highlights the importance of protecting South Africa’s unique marine invertebrate resources, many of which inhabit in-shore reef systems close to highly populated coastal cities.