"We can cure cancer with a shotgun, so curing cancer is not the problem," explained Georgia Tech biologist Mark Hay. "Curing cancer without harming patients is a whole different thing that's very difficult to figure out.
"Many compounds have been found to have a negative effect on cancer cells, but almost none of them have gone to market because of adverse side effects that make them unusable.
"These [newly discovered] compounds might also have those kind of constraints, but the exciting thing is that they are a new structural class, so they have the potential, although it is only potential, to be useful with fewer side effects."
The compounds found in the seaweed are unique because they have a previously unknown type of carbon skeleton.
"It's very unusual," Kubanek explained in her press statement. "[The compounds] represent a new category of organic molecules. It's exciting as a biochemist to observe that living organisms have evolved the ability to synthesize such unique and exotic structures compared to other molecules typically produced by seaweeds."
Nature's Chemical Weapons?
The seaweed likely developed its unique germ-killing compounds to attack its predators and protect itself from disease.
Marine organisms can create molecules and compounds for reproduction, defense, and disease resistance. The compounds can deter predators by poisoning them, slowing their growth, sterilizing them, or even killing them outright.
"If you think about the different life forms on an ocean reef, for example, lots of organisms have structural defenses, but seaweed generally doesn't," said Paul Jensen of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.
"These nice, fleshy plants are sitting out there, and you're wondering why something isn't eating them. [There] are all kinds of organisms looking for something to eat. Some of them cause infection in marine plants. So why aren't all these seaweeds decomposing and becoming infected?"
It's difficult to isolate the role of chemical compounds in such resistance, Jensen said, but evidence suggests that they are very important in the plants' natural defenses.
"We're trying to understand how these organisms solve their own problems with these compounds," Georgia Tech's Hay said.
This may also help researchers find ways to create valuable medicines from the red seaweed and other reef species.
"There's some serendipity involved," Scripps Institution's Jensen said. "If you're looking at things that may be designed to kill bacteria in nature, there's a reasonable chance that they may work pretty well to kill bacteria in a clinical application."
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