Soft sea corals found to be source of ‘anti-cancer’ compound

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Flexible soft sea corals have been found to be the source of a natural chemical that has shown promise in initial studies for treating cancer, according to scientists.

By identifying the source, researchers at the University of Utah Health (U of U Health) are able to go a step further and find the animal’s DNA code for synthesizing the chemical. As a result, they were able to carry out the first steps of re-creating the soft coral chemical in a laboratory.

Eric Schmidt, PhD, professor of medicinal chemistry at U of U Health led the study with Paul Scesa, PhD, postdoctoral scientist and first author, and Zhenjian Lin, PhD, assistant research professor. A second research group led by Bradley Moore, PhD, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, independently showed that corals make related molecules. Both studies were published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

According to researchers this advancement opens up the possibility of producing the compound in the large amounts needed for rigorous testing and could one day result in a new tool to fight cancer.

To find out whether the coral’s genetic code carried instructions for making the compound, scientists were able to find regions of coral DNA that resembled genetic instructions for similar types of compounds from other species. After programming bacteria grown in the lab to follow coral DNA instructions specific to the soft coral, the microorganisms were able to replicate the first steps of making the potential cancer therapeutic, according to the researchers.

This proved that soft corals are the source of eleutherobin, a chemical with anti-cancer properties, according to the findings. It also demonstrated that it should be possible to manufacture the compound in the lab. The researchers are now focusing on filling in the missing steps of the compound’s recipe and determining the best way to produce large amounts of the potential drug, they said.