Three divers are getting ready for an underwater expedition near Nice on the French coast but this is no leisure dive: they are scientists working on a new marine research project.
They are looking for a type of sponge called ‘crambe crambe’ because it produces molecules which can be used to make new medicines.
This type of red sponge covers the rocks like a fine film and that’s why it is so difficult to collect. In order to get it out of the sea the divers gently prise free pieces of rock with a hammer and knife.
The sponge is a living organism which is extremely fragile and must be kept alive.
Euronews’ Claudio Rocco explained what happens next: “The freshly caught sponges are transported in a special container to the Oceanographic Observatory of Villefranche. There they will be cultured and studied.”
The sponges are transported in containers which hold sea water. Once they are cultured in the aquarium they must be kept in climatic conditions adapted for their survival.
Eva Ternon, a researcher at Nice’s Sophia-Antipolis University, talked us through the process: “We are going fix the optimal conditions to produce the molecules, so we are going to set the water temperature, the light, the brightness and also the output of water that has just come from the sea, so it’s natural water in order that they produce a maximum number of interesting molecules.
“We regularly subject the sponges to stress, we scrape their external tissues because it is in these cases that the sponges produce molecules in the sea water. We have developed a procedure which allows us to extract these molecules and analyse them in a lab.”
All this is being done within the framework of a European project called BAMMBO – Biologically Active Molecules of Marine Based Origin which aims for sustainable production of medicines that come from the sea. The project is being led by Ireland’s Limerick Institute of Technology.
Next the molecules are brought to a laboratory to be analysed and chemically purified. Each molecule may be used for different therapeutic applications – mainly against cancer but also against Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and as antibacterials or anti-fungals.
But why are scientists interested in marine organisms, rather than other types of organisms?
The answer comes from Olivier Thomas, a professor at Sophia-Antipolis: “The marine environment is unique in the sense that you find many creatures which are essentially static – fixed on rocks and so on – which have to defend themselves by producing active molecules. We have developed a procedure for producing these molecules in large quantities which respects the environment, more so than other molecule productions which rely on chemical synthesis. This means that the organisms remain alive, that only the molecules are extracted and the environment can keep the living organisms.”
First of all the biological activity of the molecules – their capacity to eradicate cancer for example – must be tested. And they are tested on animals which come from the sea – sea urchins. The process of cell multiplication in these animals is very close to that observed in humans and the high multiplication rate is close to that of cancer cells.
So a molecule which prevents cell division in the embryo of a sea urchin could have anti-cancer properties. Tests are carried out in the laboratory. Observation through a microscope shows the multiplication of cells in an embryonic sea urchin.
The resources of the sea are still under exploited and our ability to make the most of them is crucial. Among marine biodiversity the invertebrates – like sponges – have not been scientifically studied much. Yet they contain the ingredients which could lead to a whole new generation of medicines.