Researching a cure

Many important medications have been discovered in some of the most remote and unexpected places on Earth. For example, the antibiotic penicillin was first derived in 1928 from a type of mold. USF Chemist Bill Baker has pinpointed a compound that could lead to an effective medical treatment for melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer. The compound occurs naturally in an invertebrate marine animal known as a tunicate. Baker found the specific species of tunicate that possess the compound while diving in the waters near Anvers Island, Antarctica.

After isolating the compound at USF, it was sent to the National Cancer Institute for testing. This testing concluded that the compound, named Palmerolide A, displayed positive effects on melanoma cells. “What we have right now is an indication that this compound (Palmerolide A) has potent and selective activity towards melanoma. The molecule itself has sufficient drug-like properties to make us believe that it is worth pursuing,” Baker said.

According to the American Cancer Society, the number of melanoma cases diagnosed in the United States has held a steady rate of increase at just below 3 percent since 1981. Melanoma is also the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in people ages 25 to 29. Baker explained the timeline for testing, development and approval for the compound is likely to be “at best, maybe ten years down the road. At worst, maybe twenty years down the road,” but added that, “The way things are working today, ten years is not unreasonable.”

The fact that the required species of tunicate is only available in one of the most inhospitable and inaccessible areas of the globe poses a problem in regard to attaining sufficient amounts of the compound for testing or commercial manufacture. “The Antarctic Treaty prohibits commercial exploitation of the continent of Antarctica,” Baker mentioned in response to this issue.

After explaining that raising tunicates in captivity was “doubtful,” Baker pointed out that, “The most important issue is that we can synthesize this. We don’t need to go out and rape reefs to supply a commercial market.”

Although only in the early stages, the compound hopefully will become a treatment better than any other for melanoma. “What we’re currently pursuing is the compound’s mechanism of action,” said Baker. “This is basically trying to understand why it kills melanoma cells, what the biochemistry is.”

The American Cancer Society estimates that melanoma was diagnosed in over 55,000 people during 2004. Statistics such as this, combined with melanoma’s threat of spreading to other organs depict clearly the necessity for new and more effective treatments for this type of cancer. Baker also added a bit of hope for the battle against other forms of cancer by saying, “(The research) may give us insights into the cancer process itself and perhaps treating other types of cancer.”