September 23, 2023

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Looking The Ocean’s Depths For Future Medicines : Short Wave : NPR


You’re listening to Shorter WAVE from NPR.

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KWONG: We are headed to the deep sea nowadays, off the west coastline of Eire. Sam Afoullouss is one of just a handful of people who’ve seen what life down there, a mile or much more beneath the surface area.

SAM AFOULLOUSS: And out of nowhere, this big, giant sponge appeared – big, big trumpet sponge, like kind of the equal of a gramophone – sticking out from the wall. So it was likely 2 meters broad and perhaps 3 meters deep.

KWONG: Now, Sam won’t dive down to the depths himself. He views what’s beneath by a camera connected to a fancy robotic. It reveals a section of our world that looks like an alien globe.

AFOULLOUSS: Branching bamboo corals the size of a tree.

The corals reaching out about cliff edges.

Gigantic sponges.

This very small minimal octopus referred to as the Dumbo octopus for the reason that it has these small flaps beside his ears that kind of make it seem like Dumbo.

KWONG: But Sam’s not there to gawk at critters. As an underwater chemist, he is a lot more intrigued in the chemical substances these marine organisms make, chemical substances that can be utilized for drug discovery. We people have been drawing medicinal inspiration from nature for a extended time.

AFOULLOUSS: And which is where most of our medications come from – derived or encouraged by natural resources. And a large amount of these occur from traditional cure kind of matters. Like, aspirin is built from a molecule known as salicylic acid, and salicylic acid is identified in willow bark and has been utilised for hundreds of a long time as a way to deal with suffering.

KWONG: Lots of solutions arrive from indigenous awareness, and even though a great deal of present-day medicines encouraged by nature appear from land, Sam suggests the deep sea has chemical compounds that can mend, also.

AFOULLOUSS: My beloved a person which is been found so far is certainly ziconotide. It’s a painkiller which is 1,000 occasions stronger than morphine. Would not have any of the addictive side consequences that you affiliate with opioids. And it can be identified from a sea snail in the tropics.

KWONG: Anti-cancer medicine built from sponge metabolites, analgesic from Caribbean corals – these are just a few possible medications scientists have uncovered from our oceans. The obstacle is having down there.

These days on the display, how the subsequent technology of medicines could be uncovered in the deep sea. I am Emily Kwong. And you are listening to Small WAVE, the day by day science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: When Sam Afoullouss moved to Galway, a coastal metropolis in western Ireland, it was to review chemistry.

AFOULLOUSS: I started out researching spider venoms and trying to make antibiotics out of them and anti-cancer medications.

KWONG: Well, spider venoms were being for weekdays, but weekends had been for scuba diving.

AFOULLOUSS: I might commit the night in a place called Connemara, which is a significant, key park in the vicinity of here, and I might be scuba diving the whole time. And the scuba diving got me truly, seriously fascinated in the maritime environment. In Ireland, we have gotten rid of most of our wild ecosystems. There is pretty tiny forest remaining and points like that. So for us to working experience real wildlife was very really hard.

KWONG: And it was expending time in these very distinct spots, the chem lab and the ocean, that led Sam to a revelation. He could merge these passions by searching for medications in the deep sea.

AFOULLOUSS: Everyday living on land is monotonous in comparison to the sea, no question about it. And then, as you go deeper, the species diverge extra.

KWONG: Additional biodiversity usually means much more chemical variety, which is just the type of factor an underwater chemist needs to see, not that you can see a great deal of everything outside the house of the robotic floodlight. Ailments down there are rather extreme.

AFOULLOUSS: In the deep sea, you will find no mild. It is really all-around 4 levels Celsius, so the type of temperatures of your fridge, and you can find exceptionally substantial tension. It’s type of the equivalent of acquiring 20 elephants standing on you, if you were to go down that deep. So a quite excessive atmosphere.

KWONG: Deep-sea creatures have experienced to adapt to these powerful ailments, occasionally working with definitely exciting metabolic chemical substances to do it. But very first, to research it at all, Sam has to get to these inaccessible areas, with the assist of underwater robots and their surprisingly gentle arms.

AFOULLOUSS: We can decide up the type of coral that is smaller sized than, like, the straw that you would get in your Coca-Cola or a little something like that. And we ended up able to decide on it up from 2 kilometers depth with out sort of damaging the other animals all-around it.

KWONG: Wow. What is actually so amazing about your analysis, Sam, is you happen to be doing a little something that individuals have been accomplishing without end, which is searching for bioactive chemicals that could be medicinal – proper? – but in a put that quite couple of folks have absent before. So at the time you collect these form of really hard-to-come across samples, what do you do with them?

AFOULLOUSS: Yeah. So when we get back to land, we freeze-dry all of them, so they are dry, type of the equal of tea leaves, and then we extract them.

KWONG: Sam and his colleagues then test these deep-sea extracts on distinctive ailments in the lab.

AFOULLOUSS: A substantially higher share of all those are able to destroy a sickness than what you would come across on shallow-drinking water reefs and when compared to what you would discover if you compared it to land animals or land life, regardless of whether it is mushrooms or vegetation.

KWONG: They have attempted them on cancers, malaria, even brain-consuming amoebas.

AFOULLOUSS: And if we’re fortunate, if just, say, we are searching for an anti-cancer drug, a person of these extracts will be in a position to kill that specific kind of cancer. And that lets us know that this extract, which is a mixture of maybe a hundred molecules, it’s possible a thousand molecules from that sponge or that coral, consists of at the very least a single molecule with the likely to be turned into a drugs.

KWONG: And when you’ve determined that individual molecule that has the prospective to be a medication, it can’t be as simple as then just declaring to the pharmaceutical marketplace, in this article, and they get it right to the shelf.

AFOULLOUSS: Specifically.

KWONG: What’s expected to in fact go a drugs from sea to shelf?

AFOULLOUSS: Yeah. So it can be pretty a undertaking. The initially strategy and the most traditional solution would have been to acquire it from character. But we now know that there is no way that that’s sustainable. You’d be destroying these tremendous advanced and intricate ecosystems. The next approach is to make it in the lab, to synthesize it. But this is actually, definitely challenging, really, seriously expensive and takes advantage of a good deal of items like significant metals that are not excellent for the atmosphere and end up creating a ton of chemical waste. But the most current technique that everybody’s sort of pushing toward as our sort of gold standard is by using the organic recipe, so the gene, and insert them into some thing we can increase definitely quickly, like yeast or E. coli, increase them up in a bioreactor, the exact way you make beer, and instead of the yeast developing us beer, it is creating us our next generation of medicines.

KWONG: Genetics – remarkable. Sam, what is the most fascinating detail you’ve got located whilst wanting for medicines in the deep sea?

AFOULLOUSS: So the bubblegum coral is almost certainly just one of the – my favourite coral that we’ve located so much in the deep sea. So it is called a bubblegum coral because it can be brilliant pink like kind of, you know, kid’s bubblegum. But you can find also the polyps, which are type of the dwelling section of the coral. When you kind of go up to it and disturb it with the ROV, they retract into them selves, and it appears to be like like form of the bubblegum that someone left on the bottom of your school bus. But it can be incredibly attractive as a coral. And that particular coral confirmed that – the tea we made from it showed that it was ready to kill malaria.

KWONG: They had learned a new chemical with medicinal prospective, and it wanted a identify. So one day, Sam’s niece was watching over his shoulder as he drew the chemical’s molecular framework on the personal computer, and she needed to support.

AFOULLOUSS: And then 50 % an hour later, she appeared at me and was like, have you not figured out what it is yet? And I was like, no, have you? And she was like, yeah, we do this stuff in college all the time – ’cause she imagined it was be a part of the dots. And she was like, it really is a whale, foolish. And I was like, oh, my, thank you, Amelia (ph).


AFOULLOUSS: I was like, you know, wherever would I be with out your support? And she explained it with pure sass, as well. It was outstanding. And so for the reason that of that, we were being like, you know what? It does glance like a whale. And in Irish, the word for whale is miol mor. So we determined to name it melianol.

KWONG: How do you experience about what you do?

AFOULLOUSS: I really like it. I definitely adore it.


AFOULLOUSS: I genuinely even…


AFOULLOUSS: ‘Cause you happen to be utilizing what is been evolving for hundreds of thousands of a long time to resolve our issues of the foreseeable future, and you happen to be executing it in the traditional way – just making use of state-of-the-artwork methods to it.

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AFOULLOUSS: The deep sea is underexplored, and it’s vital to highlight how vulnerable they are to our routines. Even even though they are out of sight and out of brain, they can not escape our destruction. And I feel by showing, as well, that, you know, we can come across our new medicine in these sophisticated, understudied ecosystems, it variety of highlights the value of why we want to secure them.

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KWONG: Sam Afoullouss just acquired his Ph.D. in Galway, Ireland. You can see pics of his underwater exploration on the episode webpage at

This episode was developed by Berly McCoy. It was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and reality-checked by Rachel Carlson. The audio engineer was Gilly Moon. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I’m Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to Short WAVE from NPR.


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