Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystems May Hold Cancer Cures, But They Face Threats
By Holly Binns
To Shirley Pomponi the sea sponges lining her office shelves are more than colorful specimens; they're potentially lifesaving creatures, some of which could hold the complex secrets to cures for cancers and other diseases.
The marine biotechnology expert, who is research professor and executive director of the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, has spent more than 30 years studying deep-sea sponges, simple organisms that are often found in coral ecosystems in all of the world's seas.
Sponges exist from the shallows close to shore to thousands of feet below the surface. Together with corals, they make up unique communities that have been barely studied but are natural disease fighters, which scientists believe hold important properties that already are producing treatments for some cancers.
Sponges and corals may appear primitive, Pomponi said, "But they have genes, proteins, and metabolic pathways that are similar to ours."
Tube sponges (Aiolochroia crassa) and corals share space in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.NOAA
The medical promise of sponges and corals is a driving force behind efforts to conserve their valuable habitats, which are mainly threatened by damaging fishing gear, but also from oil and gas development, and changing ocean conditions. In the Gulf of Mexico, fishery managers are considering a proposal to safeguard coral and sponge hotspots by restricting damaging fishing gear, such as trawls, anchors, and bottom longlines, in up to 23 sites deemed a high priority for protection. (If you want to encourage managers to protect corals and sponges, sign our petition.)
Even with the deep sea's promise for human health solutions, scientists don't have plans to harvest corals and sponges for medical uses. Scientists would take samples that they could use to try to replicate in a lab the promising properties that sponges and corals produce in the wild.
"It would be economically and ecologically unrealistic to exploit these habitats, especially because corals and sponges provide habitat as well as feeding and breeding grounds for fish, crabs, shrimp and many other species," said Pomponi, who earned a doctorate in biological oceanography from the University of Miami in 1977 and became an expert on the hundreds of different species of sponges throughout the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.
Scientists have discovered a potent anti-cancer compound within the glass sponge Aphrocallistes beatrix.Shirley Pomponi
Sponges and Corals Are Natural Disease Fighters
Sponges have existed in the oceans for 600 million years, surviving through mass extinctions and severe environmental stresses.
Sponges can't move. To defend themselves they produce chemicals, some of which are shown to fight infection in humans, and further protect their territory by stopping other organisms' cells from dividing and taking over—similar to how drugs stop the spread of cancer.
In fact, said Pomponi, in more than 45 years of studying sponges she's never seen a tumor in one. "Somehow they make sure cancer cell precursors either repair themselves or die. What we can learn from that could mean a better understanding of how cancer develops in humans—and how we might even prevent it. We can not only tap into their arsenal of chemicals, but also their metabolic pathways for human health applications."
Shirley Pomponi carries a sponge in a bucket of seawater to the wet lab on board the University of Miami Research Vessel Walton Smith in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015. Pomponi retrieved the sample using the NMSF Mohawk remotely operated vehicle, operated by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.Shirley Pomponi
Discoveries from sponges already have provided antibiotics and cancer drugs, and their skeletons are being studied to develop ways to grow bone for grafting and dental implants. Some species in the Gulf of Mexico are used in drugs to treat breast cancer. Scientists see similar potential in deep-sea corals, which also have existed for millions of years. Researchers have discovered that one type of gorgonian coral, also known as sea fans, contains powerful anti-inflammatory chemicals, some soft corals have potential anti-cancer and anti-viral properties, and bamboo corals may also be useful in bone grafting.
Shirley Pomponi rests next to the Mohawk remotely operated vehicle in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015. She regularly uses ROVs to explore deep-sea coral ecosystems.Shirley Pomponi
Human Activity Threatens to Erase Potential Cures
Pomponi's institute has been exploring the Gulf of Mexico and other parts of the world and researching marine-derived chemicals since 1984. Yet with much of the Gulf and the rest of the world's seas unexplored, the race is on between those seeking beneficial discoveries and the human activities that could destroy a potential cancer cure before it's discovered.
Pomponi says the Gulf's jewels have already been compromised. In one case, promising research on melanoma was slowed when scientists, seeking more samples of a key sponge, returned to where they had found it only to discover the area heavily damaged by trawls and the sponges gone. Scientists working on treatment for Alzheimer's disease encountered a similar situation—nearly obliterated habitat. Those researchers eventually got one small sample, after combing through 30,000 photos taken in the area to locate a still-viable specimen.
"We want to avoid a situation where the environment is damaged and some unique animal that produces a chemical that could cure cancer or other dreaded diseases is destroyed," Pomponi concludes. If these remarkable sea creatures aren't protected, she adds, "Who knows what we'll lose?"
Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. South Atlantic Ocean, and the U.S. Caribbean.
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By Daisy Simmons
1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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