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Doctors develop life-saving drugs from coral reefs

The chemicals that help corals and sponges survive are also helping people. Halaven, a drug derived from a sea sponge compound came on the market in Nov. 2010, and has improved survival among women who have metastatic breast cancer. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

By Christina Caron
NBC News

KEY WEST -- The kaleidoscope of life in the coral reefs under the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys is a magnet for tourists, but it’s not just a pretty view.

The same chemistry that helps corals and sponges survive is also helping people fight cancer.

“What we’re doing is taking advantage of that chemistry and turning those chemicals into drugs to save lives,” said Stephanie Wear, director of coral reef conservation at the Nature Conservancy.

Wear describes the reefs as the "New York City" of the oceans, “where everything is happening,” because it is 400 to 600 times more likely to find a source for a drug in the ocean than on land -- and the densely packed coral reefs are an even more plentiful source.

But climate change and waterway pollution threaten the sea life that house these healing properties.

“The [coral reef] population is diminished by about 90 percent across the Caribbean,” said James Byrne, the marine science program manager at the Nature Conservancy.

With corals under siege, scientists at the Nature Conservancy have created coral farms --- currently supporting more than 30,000 corals across Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- to sustainably harvest the life-saving properties of the reef.

“We’re taking these corals and growing them out in nurseries just like a tree farm would and replanting them back on the reef and doing it in a way that we’re really maximizing that potential for reproduction in the future,” said Byrne.

In the clear waters of the Florida Keys, scientists glue some of the corals to cinder blocks on the ocean floor, and hang others from a rope resembling a laundry line, allowing them to float in the water.  Eventually, they hope to put out up to 4,000 corals a year – all to battle some of the worst diseases known to humankind: cancer, leukemia, AIDS -- and perhaps even Lupus, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

The Staghorn coral population has been decimated by warming oceans and disease. The Nature Conservancy scuba team is working to regrow coral in nurseries on the ocean floor.

Arden O'Connor, a 34-year-old who lives in Boston, Mass., beat leukemia with help from Ara-C, a chemotherapy drug originally derived from sea sponges that thrive in the coral reefs.

Without it, O'Connor said, she could have died at age 26. 

“I’ve spent most of my life swimming in the ocean but absolutely didn’t assume it would have anything to do with my cancer,” said O’Connor, who has been cancer-free for seven years.  

Halaven, another drug also derived from a sea sponge, came on the market in Nov. 2010, and has improved survival among women who have metastatic breast cancer.

“Without the reefs and without doing that biodiversity conservation, we have no starting points,” said Dr. Edward Suh, who develops new drugs at Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai, the lab that produces Halaven.

Caption: The Earth's oceans are natural medicine chests and scientists derive medications from sea sponges to treat diseases like breast cancer. Dr. Linda Vahdat, Director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses Halaven, a new cancer drug.

Using the chemicals present in the sea sponge saves time during the drug production process, he added. 

“In order to make this natural product a drug by synthesis, we would require over 60 steps,” he said. “And the typical drug is about 10 steps or less.”

For many doctors, the drug has proven to be an exciting option for their patients.

“Sometimes patients are interested in where the drugs come from … and it’s interesting because when you mention to them that it’s derived from a natural product they seem to be a little bit better with the concept of getting these types of therapies,” said Dr. Linda Vahdat, the director of the breast cancer research program at Weill Cornell Medical College. “For millennia there have been natural products used to treat tumors and we know it from the ancient Egyptian writings -- and certainly moving into contemporary space we use a lot of natural products to treat our patients with breast cancer.”

NBC's Mario Garcia contributed to this report.