What Is Marine Pharmacology?

In a world plagued by novel illnesses, the discovery and development of novel pharmaceuticals to treat them is becoming increasingly urgent. Coincidentally, a lot of people have become skeptical about the efficacy and ingredients of those treatments. What may surprise you is that there are lots of fascinating pharmaceuticals that are sourced directly from the ocean.

Marine Pharmacology is the study of the sources, chemistry, and uses for drugs derived from oceanic plants and animals. Below are a few examples of some surprising medicines that have even more surprising origins.

There has been some misinformation passed around recently that horseshoe blood is an ingredient in vaccines. In reality, it is used to test vaccines. It contains a potent antibacterial compound that effectively finds antigens and clots around them, making them easy to spot. This makes it an extremely effective tool for detecting contamination in and ensuring the safety of vaccines. With the recent global expansion in vaccine production, horseshoe crab blood is in high demand.

Horse shoe crab blood being harvested for vaccine testing.

A species of mediterranean sponge called Spongia officinalis (the same used in your bathtub) exudes a defensive secretion that has anti-inflammatory properties. French and Tunisian collaborators found that an extract from the secretion slowed growth of human cancer cells. (Mayer et al., 2010)

Keyhole limpet

An extract called hemocyanin from keyhole limpets, which are an abundant mollusk in the eastern Pacific, has remarkable immune-boosting properties and has been successfully used in immunotherapy and cancer treatment.

Ziconitide is an FDA approved painkiller derived from the venom of a fish-eating marine snail called Conus magus. The best thing about ziconitide is that it’s not addictive, and because of its unique action in the body, you can’t build up a tolerance to it, unlike opioids.

Conus magus shell

Tabectidin has been approved in the EU to treat certain types of cancer, and comes from a tropical tunicate species Ecteinascidia turbinata.

Ecteinascidia turbinata

These are just a tiny sample of the fascinating discoveries being made in marine pharmacology. Given how little we know about the ocean, I’m willing to bet there are plenty yet to be made.

Literature Cited:

Mayer, A. M. S., Glaser, K. B., Cuevas, C., Jacobs, R. S., Kem, W., Little, R. D., McIntosh, J. M., Newman, D. J., Potts, B. C., & Shuster, D. E. (2010). The odyssey of marine pharmaceuticals: A current pipeline perspective. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 31(6), 255–265. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tips.2010.02.005

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