Toxic blue-green algae may provide new anti-cancer drugs

Published on February 12, 2008 at 1:31 PM · No Comments

A collaborative team of researchers spearheaded by Dennis Carson M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Rebecca and John Moores UCSD Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has identified a potent new anti-cancer drug isolated from a toxic blue-green algae found in the South Pacific.

The properties of somocystinamide A (ScA) are described in a paper that will be published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science the week of February 11 -15.

“We are excited because we have discovered a structurally unique and highly potent cancer-fighting compound,” said Dwayne G. Stupack, associate professor of pathology at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center. “We envision it will be perfect for emerging technology, particularly nanotechnology, which is being developed to target cancerous tumors without toxic side effects.”

The ScA compound was found in the cyanobacteria L. Majuscula, also known as “mermaid's hair,” gathered off the coast of Fiji in the South Pacific by the laboratory of William Gerwick at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. A diverse team of researchers from UCSD's Cancer Center, School of Medicine, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Scripps worked to identify, screen and test marine compounds in vitro and in vivo. They found that ScA inhibits neovascularization, the formation of blood vessels that feed tumors, and also had a direct impact on tumor cell proliferation.

“The compound isn't toxic to the cyanobacteria itself, but activates a ‘death pathway', present in our cells,” said Stupack. “When the cells of the blood vessels that feed tumors become activated and proliferate, they become especially sensitive to this agent.”

Gerwick noted that if a normal-sized swimming pool full of cancer cells were treated with ScA, it would take only three milligrams – about the weight of a grain of rice – to kill all of the cancer cells.

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