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Researchers Search Ocean for Potential Cancer Treatment

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This segment originally aired June 19, 2006.

Aspirin is found in the bark of a willow tree, penicillin from a fungus, and the anti-cancer drug Taxol originates from the pacific yew tree. We rarely think about the source of our medicines, but for years drug companies have combed the soil for potential therapeutics. With those resources running dry, a team of local researchers is turning to the very birthplace of life itself, the sea. Rebecca Tolin has more. 

Jim Huston, attorney and novelist: It's a full life. I have to be a little more careful than I used to. 
Jim Huston's days are filled, working as a litigator, writing best-selling novels and spending time with his family: 5 kids and wife Dianna of 26 years. But the happy normalcy of life was interrupted in 2001 during a martial arts match. 
Jim Huston: Suddenly my ribs caved in on the right side and they broke. And that really hurt and it was very strange, because it didn't feel like the kind of force necessary to break a rib. 
Huston's ribs didn't heal as they should, and the typically energetic man became fatigued. In 2002 he was diagnosed with multiple myoloma, an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow. Huston underwent 11 months of chemotherapy and two stem cell transplants, one from his sister. 
Jim Huston: I was diagnosed as late as you can possibly be diagnosed. The prognosis was not good and that really hits you. And that's really sad. I found myself more sad than anything, that I wasn't going to see my daughter's grow up and get married and I wouldn't be able to play baseball with my son as he went into high school and that kind of stuff. 
Bill Fenical, Scripps Inst. of Oceanography: Everyone is touched by someone having cancer in their family or close friends, and so we realized that the single most important goal would be to discover molecules that we could take forward for the treatment of cancer. 
Bill Fenical and a team of researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography have discovered an anti-cancer compound - one that appears to target the fast-growing cells found in multiple myoloma patients, like Jim Huston. 
Bill Fenical: Certainly multiple myoloma is a very clear target for this new molecule. 
As chief research scientist, Fenical helped name the molecule Salinispora-A. It had never been seen before the Scripps researchers found the micro-organism in the muddy bottom of the ocean floor. Of the hundreds of microbes they collect and culture, this ruby-tinted broth has the qualities of a new, possibly ground-breaking medicine. 
Bill Fenical: We bring these samples into the lab, we isolate the bacteria, we grow them and we find out if they make a molecule that kills cancer cells. That's what we're trying to do, kill cancer cells. 
It's an intricate process of separating and screening tiny sea organisms. The ones that kill cancer cells, or other human threats like infectious disease, are grown in this shaking lab. 
Bill Fenical: We know that in this broth there's a molecule that inhibits the growth of cancer cells. So we're growing these in many different flasks in order to isolate and identify that compound. 
More than a hundred drugs we use today come from micro-organisms that live on land, but potential from those terrestrial sources is dwindling. Now Bill Fenical and his team are finding unlimited potential for new medicines in the world's oceans. 
Paul Jensen, microbiologist: It's a vast frontier and it hasn't been explored yet. And every time we turn around there's a new opportunity to discover something new. 
Paul Jensen helped dig Salinispora-A out of deep southern Atlantic waters off the coast of the Bahamas. Jensen believes they're just scratching the surface of the ocean's medicinal bounty - a saline treasure trove unlocked by Fenical's early work in the sea. 
Paul Jensen: Bill Fenical has always been a pioneer in this field and has always looked for the next direction for which to do research, and this started with him being one of the very first people to explore the ocean, put scuba gear on and go diving and collect samples for scientific purposes.
 
Bill Fenical: We want to show to the entire world of pharmaceutical discovery that the oceans are an incredible robust resource for the future. Where else will we go if we don't look at the ocean -- 70 percent of the earth, our most bio-diverse environment and an environment that holds tremendous promise for the next century? 
So far, the Scripps researchers have discovered 15 groups of marine organisms never seen before. 
Bill Fenical: It's an interesting culture, actually. 
Paul Jensen: That's fantastic.
The anticipation of a bio-medical breakthrough is palpable here. Jensen says it takes hundreds of fundamental discoveries to find one that gets to clinical trials. Salinispora-A has reached that level. 
Paul Jensen: So it's really exciting for us to have discovered something that is being tested on humans and may in fact be able to cure or prolong the life of some very sick people.
Huston hopes a medical miracle will happen in his lifetime. The Escondido man vows to fight the good fight. And he's grateful researchers are doing the same, from the land to the sea. 
Jim Huston: This is a battle that I'm in and I'm going to fight it and do the best I can and see what happens. But when people go out of their way to do research or fund research for a disease that is off the main cancer radar, those of us that are dealing with it on a daily basis are really grateful.

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