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Andrew PorterfieldAndrew Porterfield has a master’s degree in biotechnology management from the University of Maryland and has worked as a marketing communications consultant for many biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms.

Since the earth is over 70 percent ocean, one would think that the diversity of marine life would lead to a majority of treatments from the deep. But it hasn’t until very recently. Most drugs are still derived from sources on dry land.

One reason for this terrestrial bias has been that marine organisms are more challenging to find. But treatments (or potential treatments) have arisen from marine life found along coastlines, while advances in underwater technology (Scuba equipment, for example), have led to even more discoveries.


But the oceans may prove to be a treasure trove of new treatments. Many marine organisms are sessile, attached to either the ocean bottom or features of the coastline, and rely on chemical interaction for both catching prey and fending off predators. These chemicals have become new sources of drugs for a range of diseases as wide as the sea is diverse. We still have not fathomed the degree of diversity in the oceans, but marine pharmacology is already yielding results. As of 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved seven drugs derived from marine chemicals and at least another dozen are in development.

The first marine-based pharmaceutical wasn’t approved until 2004, when FDA gave the green light to Prialt, now made by Jazz Pharmaceuticals. This protein is derived from a toxin found in the marine cone snail, Conus magus. Ziconotide (the generic name for Prialt) is a strong blocker of calcium receptors and is deadly in its natural form (it’s used to paralyze small fish). FDA approved the use of Prialt for patients with severe chronic pain in 2004. The side effects are severe enough that it can only be delivered by direct injection into spinal fluid.

On the development side, scientists at the University of California, Irvine, and Seattle-based Kineta Inc. successfully completed a phase 1 obesity and insulin resistance trial on a synthetic drug based on the toxin from the stinging tentacles of the Caribbean sun anemone Stichodactyla helianthus. The drug, ShK-186, is a selective and powerful blocker of a potassium channel called Kv1.3 and is derived slightly from the original anemone toxin, used to stun (and ultimately eat) shrimp. The drug is also being tested against other inflammatory diseases, including multiple sclerosis, psoriatic arthritis, and lupus.

Not every marine therapeutic has to be a toxin, however. Stellar Biotechnologies, in Port Hueneme, California, is developing possible vaccine carrier proteins from the giant keyhole limpet (Megathura crenulata), which dwells along the western Pacific coast between California and Mexico. In this case, the company isn’t using a derivative—a large protein, keyhole limpet hemocyanin, is harvested from cultures of the limpet, and used to stimulate immune response for effective vaccines, immune system testing, and a number of adjuvant and research applications. The company resorted to aquaculture because the hemocyanin’s large size prevents derivatives from being made effectively.

As more attention turns to life beneath the ocean’s surface (there’s even a journal devoted to marine pharmacology), we’re more than likely to see a boost in drugs developed from the deep.

What marine animals do you think provide hope for future treatments?