Chemical agents extracted from Caribbean sea squirt may help find cancer treatments for certain deadly tumours

European Union funding is helping to find cancer treatments for certain deadly tumours using small marine animals. European researchers are using chemical agents extracted from a type of Caribbean sea squirt, named Ecteinascidia turbinata, to treat some tumours. The breakthrough findings will soon be published in the Marine Drugs journal. The project on “A novel marine pharmaceutical with unique mechanism of action for the treatment of cancer”, has helped to establish trials in 24 EU centres across seven European countries. The project, involving Dutch, French and Spanish participants, aims to test the chemicals in treating sarcomas, a rare tumour that kills about 3,900 Europeans a year. Although sarcomas respond to chemotherapy, which shrinks the tumour’s growth, a cure has not yet been found. But the discovery of the alkaloid chemical, Ecteinascidin-743 (ET-743), is a breakthrough for medical science. The chemical is used as a chemotherapeutic agent and has shown promising results in patients where other treatments have failed. It has enormous potential for treating a range of cancers, such as breast cancer.

“This represents an important medical development in the treatment of certain cancers,” European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said. “Cancer kills more than 750,000 people a year. The EU is investing up to €400 million in cancer research over 4 years. But our investments will only bear fruit if researchers and funding agencies across Europe work together. The project shows it is possible to overcome fragmentation in cancer research and involve private companies in developing new cancer cures.”

EU funding for trials could help save lives
Natural resources found in the ocean, such as algae, seaweed and marine animals can help treat cancers. Early trials of the alkaloid, ET-743, or Yondelis, which is extracted from the sea squirts, have shown promising results. In May 2001 the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products gave Yondelis “orphan status”, a class of drugs targeting rare diseases, to treat sarcomas.

Sea squirt chemical agents alternative to existing treatments
Sarcomas are divided into two main groups, bone tumours and soft tissue sarcomas (STS). STS can only be diagnosed once tissue from the tumour is analysed under a microscope. Currently, STS are surgically removed or treated using chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A combination of treatments may be used depending on the nature of the tumour. Biological therapy, which stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer, is still being clinically tested. ET-743 extracted from sea squirts can be used as an alternative chemotherapeutic agent to help where traditional therapies have limited impact.

European co-operation means patients access new treatments sooner
EU funding is helping to carry out trials for Yondelis in the 24 EU centres across the seven countries. Some 167 patients are participating in the trials to test the chemical against soft-tissue sarcomas. These trials are proving significant in developing the chemical. Yondelis may also be tested against other tumour types such as breast cancer, which kills 130 000 EU citizens a year, and with other treatments.
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