Deep-sea sponges have healing qualities


Irish researchers have joined forces to search for new drugs and antibiotics retrieved from an unusual source, writes BETH O’DONOGHUE

A RESEARCH VESSEL docked in Galway bay last week carrying a different kind of deep-sea treasure – sponges. The 10-day research trip explored a deep canyon off the Irish continental shelf in the hopes of finding new products that can be used in antibiotics and anti-cancer medicines.

The trip, organised by Prof Mark Johnson, of the Martin Ryan Institute in Galway, was part of a joint programme involving researchers from University College Cork, NUI Galway and Queen’s University Belfast.

This is the first time the researchers have explored at such depths. Usually marine diversity is sampled using trawls and metal grabs, says Johnson. This time a remotely operated vehicle, purchased by the Marine Institute for national use, enabled the filming and capture of Irish marine life such as starfish and sponges.

“This is the first time we’ve been in these canyons and our research will give us more information on how to carry out future work,” says Dr Louise Allcock, one of the NUI Galway scientists who participated in the cruise, which was funded by the Marine Institute Ship Time Programme.

Deep canyons have areas of exposed wall surfaces to which organisms can attach and grow, unlike silted-up areas in more shallow waters, making them a very valuable area for exploration, says Johnson.

“Our parameters are to look in areas where we’ll find scientifically interesting things. Ireland has such enormous marine resources, we should be exploiting this to our advantage,” says Allcock.

This cruise was part of an effort to develop a national centre of excellence in Ireland in marine biodiscovery. Much of the funding is being provided by the Beaufort Awards for Marine Biodiversity programme.

Under the scheme, scientists at the Martin Ryan Institute are concentrating on mapping Irish marine biodiversity. Once cretures are recovered, teams in Belfast and Cork screen them for the presence of bioactive substances that can be used in new medicines.

Researchers at the Environmental Research Institute at UCC have already found a number of compounds of interest recovered from sponges living in shallow waters at Lough Hyne, Baltimore in Cork.

The teams are particularly interested in compounds produced by sponges, as previous studies have found them to be full of bioactive compounds with anti-cancer, anti- viral and antibacterial properties. Their inability to move away from predators may account for their highly developed defences, explains Johnson. The team at QUB is also interested in the novel properties of different algae.

This survey is the first time that scientists have looked at the biodiscovery potential of sponges in colder waters. It is particularly exciting as all patents for new drugs that arise from the research will reside with the Irish State, says Prof Alan Dobson, director at the Environmental Research Institute.

The scientists are examining the products made by the sponges and are also looking at the bacteria that live within the sponges.

As well as looking for compounds with anti-cancer and antibacterial properties, the researchers in at UCC and QUB are searching for naturally occurring marine substances that prevent the formation of biofilms. Biofilms are created by groups of bacteria building up on surfaces and are extremely resistant to even the harshest disinfectants. This creates major problems in hospital settings. As a result, the work of the scientists has major benefits for the biomedical industry, according to Dobson.

One problem for the scientists is that it is impossible to grow almost 99 per cent of known bacteria in the laboratory. To overcome this, they are using special techniques, transferring the DNA of the unculturable bacteria into bacteria that can be grown to see if they produce new pharmacological substances, explains Dr John Kennedy at UCC.

The researchers are confident that the samples taken from the one canyon so far explored will provide them with many interesting compounds for investigation.

Considering the number of deep-sea canyons in Irish waters, it could be that the scientists’ discoveries will be far more valuable than any amount of buried gold.