Posted on August 7, 2010 by Esther Guzmán, Assistant Research Professor, HBOI/FAU
What is an immunologist doing in an oceanographic research vessel? Well, if one is lucky enough to work at the Biomedical and Biotechnology Research Group at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, the answer is simple: collecting organisms that hold potential cures against cancer.
About 70 percent of medicines we routinely use have their origin in a natural product: they are either produced naturally, or were derived from a natural product. Given that the oceans cover ¾ of the earth, it makes perfect sense to look into the ocean richness for potential new drugs. The biological diversity of invertebrates and soft corals results in an equally amazing diversity of chemicals with the potential to cure human disease. Our group has been isolating these chemicals and testing them for about 26 years, taking advantage of the amazing tools we have: the RV Seward Johnson and the unparalleled, manned submersibles, the Johnson-Sea-Links, which can reach depths of up to 3,000 ft and has unique collecting capabilities.
Today’s dive has Dr. Amy Wright, our director, and me very excited. In our search to find potential therapeutics useful in the fight against pancreatic cancer, we identified an organism that holds a compound that looks very promising. This dive will give us the chance to recollect the organism, so that we can continue our research on this very promising compound and confirm its potential.
We are up at 6:30 a.m., mapping the sites to explore. A previous dive in this area came close to our area of interest, but failed to find more of our organism. Amy carefully goes over coordinates and finds a location just a mile away where the terrain looks promising. She happily assures us that she is certain that we will find it here.
At around 8:00 a.m., we start our dive with our amazing pilot, Don Liberatore, fully ready to assist us with our mission. Another pilot, Frank Lombardo, is in the back chamber with me for safety. We land on the bottom at about 700 feet deep. This is a sandy site but rather bare. We move slowly and the sandy waves start revealing their richness: we see gorgonians and Stylaster coral, which in a different dive we would be collecting, but we are on a mission! Three sets of eyes comb the terrain: we know what our organism looks like and that it is small, but none of us was there when it was originally collected.
Time passes slowly. We see a beautiful anemone which we decide to collect for our students. As part of our Cooperative Institute expedition, we are conducting a graduate class where students are learning oceanographic techniques on our research vessel. We see a lithistid sponge that catches our eye. We pull closer for a second look and Amy exclaims in delight: She has found our organism near the one we first collected! Once the first one is located, our eyes adapt suddenly, and Don starts spotting them, too. We discover that this is an abundant organism. Although a chamber divides us, Amy and I cannot contain our enthusiasm. We do a “happy dance”, prompting our submersible pilots to smilingly shake their heads.
We continue our three-hour dive. We go to a ledge where there are grouper fish waiting. We see a beautiful eel and spot more of our organism of interest. We collect more, as well as some other samples of interest to the many scientists on board. Many experts wait with interest for the samples collected in this dive. We collect sponges, Stylaster coral, sea cucumbers, a sea anemone, and even plankton. Time is now moving fast, and before we know it, it is time to surface.
We ascend and are met by our fellow scientists, crew, and students, all curious about the treasures found. After all, it may not be gold, but Amy and I are certain that the richness from the sea contains cures.