Seaweed Found in Fiji May Help Fight Cancer, AIDS

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 17, 2005

A type of seaweed discovered in Fiji could someday be used to fight bacterial infections, cancer, or even AIDS, researchers report.

The red seaweed species (Callophycus serratus) is found on shallow coral reefs along the South Pacific island's coastline. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers studying the plant have recently identified ten new molecular compounds that might be developed for pharmaceutical use.

Some of the natural compounds showed promise as antibacterial fighters—even against nasty strains that are resistant to antibiotics.

A compound dubbed bromophycolide A was also intriguing. It was able to kill human tumor cells by triggering "programmed cell death," a type of cellular suicide that is considered a promising lead in the development of new anticancer drugs.

"We're only at the test tube level so far," Julia Kubanek, a Georgia Tech biochemist involved in the study, explained in a press statement. "The next step is to discover how these compounds work and then to study them in a more complex model system."

Kubanek and colleagues reported several of the new compounds in the journal Organic Letters.

Seaweed-Based Drugs

If the seaweed does turn out to have pharmaceutical uses, it could prove a boon for the Fijian economy.

The research is part of a larger project funded by the National Institutes of Health that involves Georgia Tech, the University of the South Pacific, and Fijians from several coastal villages.

The initiative blends environmental conservation and economic development by promoting the growth of new reef rock. It also preserves the reef species that may yield future drug discoveries.

But it might take at least a decade before any seaweed-based drugs are available, if indeed any are possible.

Many potential roadblocks remain, including one common to cancer treatments. The high doses needed to effectively knock out pathogens may be so strong that they would harm patients, researchers say.

Continued on Next Page >>


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