Sea sponge from icy Alaska waters may be key to pancreatic cancer treatment

July 28, 2017

A small deep-sea, dull green sponge found in the icy waters of the Pacific off Alaska may be holding the key to effective pancreatic cancer treatment, according to researchers.

Pancreatic cancer, with particularly aggressive tumors, is notoriously difficult to treat.

Bob Stone, a researcher at the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center, discovered the sponge, called Latrunculiaaustini, in 2005 while on a seabed exploration expedition in Alaska.

It lives on rocks in patches at depths of 230 to 720 feet (70 to 220 meters).

Lab testing has shown that several molecules in this sponge selectively destroy pancreatic cancer cells, said Mark Hamann, a University of South Carolina researcher working with Fred Valeriote of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit.

“This is undoubtedly the most active molecule against pancreatic cancer that we see,” said Hamann. “Although there is still much work to be done, it marks the first key step in the discovery and process of developing a treatment,” he said.

Pancreatic cancer progresses slowly, a circumstance that leaves patients in a tough position because a late diagnosis means little chance for successful treatment.

Patients’ chances of survival at five years for this tumor are only 14%, according to the American Cancer Society.

Valeriote said he has looked at over 5,000 sponge extracts over the last two decades and only saw the particular pattern of pancreatic and ovarian cancer selective activity in one other sponge that was collected many years ago in Indonesia.

In the US, 53,670 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in 2017, and more than 43,000 people will die.

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