A sea sponge found growing on the coral reefs of Indonesia contains an organic chemical that halts the cellular duplication of cancer tumors.
University researchers also point to its curative power for other diseases, too, and are strongly suggesting the cultivation of the sponge to scale, so as to boost the production of future drugs.
Proof of nature’s healing power, the sea sponge’s cancer-fighting compound manzamine-A has already been demonstrated in vitro in laboratories in the U.S., and Indonesia to inhibit the proliferation of cervical, prostate, and other cancer cells, while allowing normal healthy cells to continue replicating.
“It prevents cell replication rather than killing the cell outright, leading to immediate impacts on tumor growth, and then other drugs are useful for killing remaining tumor cells, or they may die on their own,” said Mark Hamann, a professor with the Medical University of South Carolina’s Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Sciences and corresponding author on the study.
Incredibly, manzamine A is also classified as a destroyer and inhibitor of Herpes simplex 1 virus cells, and as a successful malaria treatment.
Treating cancer—and filling wallets
“Since the sponge produces this molecule in high yields, and it seems easy to grow, you could grow it in polluted waters near wastewater plants or river mouths along the ocean, and it would potentially grow very well,” Hamann told Mongabay, a conservation-focused news outlet.
“It would be a promising economic development tool to put sponge culture facilities where there’s high nutrient loads to improve water quality and build a business around the manufacture of the drug. It’d have a valuable local impact.”
Sponge fishing and farming can be a valuable aquacultural pursuit for local economies, as the relatively-low labor required to hang long sponge ropes in shallow water on which the organism can grow represents the vast majority of the required work, after which the sponge farmers may pursue other activities, such as fishing.
Along with providing manzamine-A and helping local economies grow, the sponge (Acanthostrongylophora ingens) is a filter feeder, and would help clean dirty water in estuaries, river mouths, and along coastlines, and could be deployed as a pollutant buffer zone in front of valuable and healthy coral reefs.
Netty Siahaya, a sponge chemicals researcher who wasn’t involved with the study told Mongabay that farming sponges for pharmaceutical production while simultaneously using them to measure ecosystem health would help provide greater impetus for the protection of coral reefs and for other animals that live there, which perform additional services such as carbon regulation.
On the coast of Zanzibar, women are already farming sea sponges for use in the bath and has proved to be a reliable form of income compared to fishing—even in regions where poverty is tragically the norm.
In contrast with fish, or even pearl farming, a sponge farm can be started with little or no effort, and those who come to manage them must learn the trades of the fishermen, merchant, marine biologist, entrepreneur, and farmer, creating more powerful individuals within coastal communities.
For intrepid fishermen or other ocean workers along the coasts of Indonesia, the project could represent a lucrative trade, and a chance to tell their friends that they are literally curing cancer.