Doctors Should Embrace the Ocean

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By: John (Teddy) Nohren, SKMC Class of 2018

“We are not students of some subject matter but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline.” –Karl Popper (1`).

Every day the mountain of knowledge and innovative ideas in various scientific fields grows with increasing speed and complexity. Much like organisms in the ocean, new devices and groundbreaking treatments are discovered every day. This rate of constant expansion demands interdisciplinary individuals to facilitate incorporative innovation. Overlap between fields has no limits. In fact, seemingly unconventional combinations have provided a multitude of discoveries that have changed the modern world as we know it! Two such fields are medicine and marine biology.

Marine life has provided many clues, tools, and unique compounds to medical research with the promise of more waiting to be discovered. Porifera (sponges), for instance, have been a resource of several chemicals undergoing various clinical investigations. Two examples, crambescidins and batzelladines, are organic compounds that have shown antiviral properties, the latter of which has the ability to inhibit HIV-1 envelope-mediated cell-cell fusion (2). Discodermalide, derived from a deep-sea sponge, has shown the ability to stabilize microtubules and is being developed for cancer treatments (3). Porifera aren’t the only marine life providing chemicals that could dramatically alter current treatment standards. A little higher up the food chain, sharks have been an animal of extensive research regarding potential therapeutics. For a while there was a belief that shark cartilage held a secret to cancer treatment. However, this ultimately has been disputed after drugs, such as Neovastat, showed no significant improvements during phase III clinical trials (4). Presently, sharks are able to provide models for cancers such as melanoma (5) and their immunoglobulins & T cell receptors are promising in the field of immunotherapeutics (6).

This brief foray into a handful of instances where sponges and sharks can play a role in medicine illustrates that there is a potential treasure trove of discoveries to advance the medical field in the vast, open sea. Physicians and other medical researchers who also have a personal passion for marine biology, as well as other natural sciences, may be in a unique position to be on the forefront of innovation by existing where two fields overlap.



1.     Popper, K. (1962). Conjectures and refutations; the growth of scientific knowledge, (p. 88). New York, NY: Basic Books.

2.     Bewley, C., Ray, S., Cohen, F., Collins, S., & Overman, L. (2004). Inhibition of HIV-1 Envelope-Mediated Fusion by Synthetic Batzelladine Analogues. Journal of Natural Products, 67(8), 1319-1324.

3.     Kijjoa, A., & Sawangwong, P. (2004). Drugs and Cosmetics from the Sea. Marine Drugs, 2(2), 73-82.

4.     Falardeau, P., Champagne, P., Poyet, P., Hariton, C., & Dupont, [. (2001). Neovastat, a naturally occurring multifunctional antiangiogenic drug, in phase III clinical trials. Seminars in Oncology, 28(6), 620-625.

5.     Waldoch, J., Burke, S., Ramer, J., & Garner, M. (2010). Melanoma in the Skin of a Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, 41(4), 729-731.

6.     Criscitiello, M. (2014). What the shark immune system can and cannot provide for the expanding design landscape of immunotherapy. Expert Opinion on Drug Discovery, 9(7), 725-739.