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Funding boost to test anti-cancer marine sponge

Significant new funding will help Victoria University scientists study the components of a special marine sponge that shows great promise as a potential anti-cancer agent.
A $99,200 one-year grant from the NZ Cancer Society has been awarded to the Bioactives Research team at the University. Drs Peter Northcote, John Hoberg, Paul Teesdale-Spittle and John Miller from Victoria’s Schools of Chemical & Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences will lead a team carrying out testing of peloruside on the suppression of cancerous tumour growth in vivo.

Peloruside, a molecule from sponges found only in New Zealand waters, was isolated and characterised by Victoria University’s Dr Peter Northcote in 2000. Since that time, scientists at Victoria have shown that peloruside prevents cell division by stabilising microtubules–the protein structures required for cell division–thus leading to the death of rapidly dividing cells. This action of peloruside is similar to that of Taxol®, an effective but expensive drug currently used in the treatment of breast, ovary, colon, liver, and lung cancer.

Dr Hoberg says that although still in relatively early stages of the research, there are already two potential advantages of peloruside over Taxol®. Tests around the world have shown that during treatment some cancer cells develop a resistance to Taxol®, necessitating the introduction of a new drug that will attack rapid cell growth. The second advantage of peloruside is that it is more water-soluble than Taxol®, making it easier to distribute through the bloodstream. Additionally, research by the Bioactives Research team has to date shown that peloruside appears to be as active as Taxol ®, which, along with its analogues, is estimated to have generated sales exceeding US$2billion.

To further develop peloruside as an anti-cancer agent, the Victoria University scientists are working with NIWA to culture the sponges that produce peloruside to provide a more stable natural source and protect the natural environment.

The team also aims to synthesise peloruside to provide an alternative source of supply, which also offers the potential for generating new molecules with even better activity than the natural product. Dr Hoberg hopes that synthetic peloruside will be ready for tests in about one year.

The peloruside research has also attracted funding from the Foundation for Science, Research & Technology and the Wellington Medical Research Foundation. The research is part of a wider programme involving the Schools of Chemical & Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences, aimed at developing strategies for an integrated approach in the search for anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and immunosuppressive drugs.


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