This is one of those research projects that could lead anywhere, or nowhere. No one really knows whether the chemistry of the animals will help humans.
“It’s totally up in the air,” Gaines says. The scientists will grind the animals up, separate the chemicals, and do a variety of tests to see what looks most promising. If they find something interesting, the pharmaceutical industry will take the results and experiment with building chemical compounds that will allow humans to fight off diseases.
A Twist in History
It’s a long, tedious process that will take many years, but could pay off handsomely. After all, there is a precedent.
“If you look at all the drugs that the pharmaceutical industry uses for human health, the vast majority have been things that have been stolen from animals and plants,” Gaines says.
“It’s not things that scientists have sat back and said, oh, let’s create this new compound. The initial finding of the drug came from stealing it from some animal or plant and then they make different versions of it so they get some type of chemical that has some interesting characteristics.
“Then they follow up by modifying the structure slightly and looking at how it improves of reduces those kinds of properties,” he added.
Some of Gaines’ colleagues are searching for new anti-inflammatory drugs, others for cancer fighting compounds. They hope to collect at least 50 extracts from animals ranging from algae to invertebrates from eight of the 27 oil platforms in the area.
It’s an odd twist to the history of oil drilling in California’s coastal waters. The 1969 oil spill was such a major event that I wrote a book about it. (If you ever find an unautographed copy, buy it. They are extremely rare.)
Many people believe that spill was the primary basis for the environmental movement that swept the nation in the 1970s and 1980s.
Wouldn’t it be neat if something as important as a new cancer drug could emerge from the waters off Santa Barbara, still cluttered with oil platforms that remain just as they were so long ago. In a word, ugly.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.