The discovery of never before seen vibrant sponge gardens off the Bay of Plenty coast could signal a new era in the development of cancer fighting drugs.
The new finding was presented at the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society Conference,Titiro whakamuri, kōkiri whakamua, looking back to move forward, held at Waikato University’s Tauranga campus this week.
Waikato Bachelor of Science student Emma Donald discovered the sponges about 50 metres below the surface, off the Tauranga coastline, as part of a summer research project.
Donald said her dad, Malcolm, died from an aggressive form of brain cancer in 2019. His death motivated her to start this research project.
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“Throughout Dad’s sickness, even when he could no longer talk, the things I was learning about the ocean at university would make his face light up, he would be really proud of this,” Donald said.
Conference organiser and Waikato University chair in Coastal Sciences Professor Chris Battershill said the vast number of sponges was a rare find and many appeared to have affinities with species already known to have cancer-fighting properties.
In 1986, Battershill was part of a team of international scientists who discovered a rare sea sponge off the coast of Kaikōura in the South Island, which has since been used in the creation of the late phase breast cancer drug, Halaven.
“New Zealand is already responsible for the research behind Halaven and another treatment for HIV Aids derived from compounds in red algae. Those compounds are now also being investigated for use in a Covid-19 treatment,” Battershill said.
The sponges’ discovery would form part of a new initiative at the university, reawakening work on marine bioactive compounds for use in both pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.
The next step would be getting samples to analyse the sponges and formally identify them.
The university has also re-engaged with American and Australian colleagues at the National Cancer Institute to begin working up leads not yet developed, he said.
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