Sea sponge reduces pancreatic tumour size

Posted: 18 August 2016 | Niamh Louise Marriott, Digital Content Producer | No comments yet

A deep-water marine sponge collected at Fort Lauderdale’s coast contains leiodermatolide, a natural product that inhibits the growth of cancer cells as…

A deep-water marine sponge collected off of Fort Lauderdale’s coast contains leiodermatolide, a natural product that has the ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells as well as block cancer cells from dividing using extremely low concentrations of the compound, scientists at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbour Branch Oceanographic Institute have found.

Sea sponges are an ancient group of animals that appeared more than 600 million years ago that have many of the same genes as humans so scientists have been taking advantage of this genome similarity to isolate marine natural compounds from these organisms, to develop medicines, useful in the treatment of human diseases such as cancer.

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the US; pancreatic cancer patients have less than a 7% survival rate within five years of diagnosis, and 74% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis.

Esther Guzmán, PhD associate research professor at FAU Harbor Branch, along with her colleagues, found that leiodermatolide induces programmed cell death in pancreatic cancer cells, and inhibits the growth of other cancer cells such as metastatic melanoma, colon cancer, lymphoma, and glioblastoma – a rare and deadly form of brain cancer.

Tumour reduction

In a mouse model of metastatic pancreatic cancer, leiodermatolide exhibited significant tumour reduction when compared to gemcitabine, the standard of care drug for pancreatic cancer, and placebo, following the reduction success the drug achieved in vivo.

“Given the uniqueness of its mechanism of action, its potency, its selectivity for cancer cells, and its’ in vivo efficacy, leiodermatolide is an extremely interesting compound that merits further studies to determine its therapeutic potential for addressing some of the most devastating forms of cancer,” said Guzmán.


Natural products, or secondary metabolites, are small, organic molecules produced by organisms. Unlike primary metabolites such as sugars, fats or proteins, these molecules are not essential to sustain life; however, the compounds are thought to confer an evolutionary advantage to the producing organism.

For example, if a sponge makes a compound that is toxic to predators or tastes bad, that sponge may be protected from being eaten, and will have an advantage over one that does not produce the compound. In addition to blocking predation, natural products can have many different functions within the producing organism.

“The primary goal of our marine biomedical and biotechnology program is to discover marine natural products with utility as medicines or as tools to better allow us to understand disease processes,” said Wright.