The Healing Qualities of the Sea

For years, tropical rainforests have been explored for medicinal cures and treatments. Treatments for such ailments as cancer have been credited to compounds found in rainforest plants. It's not surprising then that coral reefs, known as the "rainforest of the sea," also have a lot to offer the field of medicine. Research in the realm of marine pharmaceuticals has over the past decade fast become a profitable industry, producing highly valuable and effective substances.

Coral reefs are a part of an amazing environment, home to a rich abundance of life. Over 500 million years ago, in warm tropical climates, coral reefs formed. Today, coral reefs cover less than 0.2% of the ocean floor, but contain approximately 25% of the ocean's species. Approximately 5,000 species of reef fish, and more than 2,500 species of coral have been identified. Additionally, in this highly productive ecosystem, algae and seagrasses are the two main types of plants found. Together, these plants and animals work in balance to maintain an extremely fertile underwater world containing numerous medicinal treasures, many still to be discovered.

Some treatments that have already been found are derived from such sources as sponges, corals, snails, and algae. The chemicals found in these living things are currently being used to treat pain, infection, and inflammation. Of particular significance is the use of blue-green algae, commonly found in mangrove environments of the Caribbean. This algae is currently used as a treatment of small-cell lung cancer and is endorsed by the National Cancer Institute for the treatment of tumors and melanoma. In this vast underwater world also exists a marine sponge, called discoderma, that has recently been tested to help people with heart, kidney, and liver transplants.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
Corals are in a pharmaceutical category of their own. Containing what are known as secosteroids, corals use these enzymes as a chemical defense mechanism against disease. Researchers at Florida's Atlantic University have found that secosteriods can also be used in a similar way in humans, controlling tumor growth. These steroids are already being used to treat asthma, arthritis, and inflammatory disorders. What is most encouraging about the use of secosteroids is that only a small sample of coral is necessary for scientists to create treatments that essentially mimic what occurs naturally.

Marine pharmaceutical research is only in the beginning stages, but so far it looks hopeful. Currently the focus is on finding possible treatments for AIDS, prostate, lung and breast cancer and researchers are optimistic that compounds found in the sea may provide some answers. Researchers are concerned, however, with the current trend of trawling and dredging, activities that threaten the aforementioned plants and animals. Because of the lack of diversity that results, dredging is often seen as the equivalent to clear-cutting a forest, and should be given the same attention. If humans are to benefit not only from the beauty, but the medicinal value of the sea for years to come, there is a need to protect and conserve what currently remains. Who knows when you or a loved one will need to look to the sea for a remedy?

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