Searching for Wonder Drugs in the Sea

With a gentle thud, the Johnson-Sea-Link II submersible lands on the ocean floor in the middle of an underwater desert that seems more like the sands of Kuwait than those enchanted undersea scenes seen in the films of Jacques Cousteau.

Aboard the submersible are members of a Florida-based undersea research group, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, in the midst of a monthlong mission. With twice-daily dives in the submersible, scientists are scouring the sea floor in search of corals and sponges that will yield new chemical compounds for medical research.

The objective: the world's next wonder drug.

"We are on the bottom," the submersible's pilot, Don Liberatore, radios to the surface. "We are on the bottom at 1,063 feet. Temperature is 11 degrees Celsius."

I knew it would be black down here, but I did not expect it to be quite so bleak.

With the submersible's exterior lights on high, we can see about 40 feet in front of us. There is nothing but sand. No fish. No coral. No rocks.

From the rear compartment, scientist Amy Wright speaks into our headsets. This is not the terrain she is looking for. We need to get to the mountain range.

The destination: the Miami Terrace. If the name conjures up images of some 1950s nightclub with Frank Sinatra crooning on the stage, think again. The Miami Terrace is a 40-mile-long underwater mountain range that stretches from Boca Raton to Miami's Key Biscayne.

Finding the Ocean's Treasures

It is incredible to think that we are just 15 miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in terrain that humans have only now begun to explore. But when you realize that 70 percent of Earth's surface is covered by oceans and the only way to explore these depths is in a military submarine or scientific submersible like this, you begin to understand why.

With its bulbous five-inch-thick Plexiglas bubble and two two-person compartments, the Johnson-Sea-Link II looks more like an underwater traffic helicopter -- or a bug -- than a conventional military submarine.

It is operated by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, a research center based in Fort Pierce, Fla. These crafts cost millions of dollars to operate, which is why there are only a half dozen scientific organizations in the world with submersibles like this.

Hovering on the ocean surface 1,063 feet above is the R/V Seward Johnson. The 204-foot-long, 40-passenger research vessel doubles as a mother ship for the submersible and a floating scientific lab.

Liberatore consults with the navigator on the surface. He throttles forward. We pass sea urchins and anemones as the sea floor starts to come alive. We see fish and crabs and creatures utterly unfamiliar to a first-time visitor.

"There's a sponge over here, Amy," says Liberatore into his headset. "I think that may be one of the ones you are looking for."

Amy Wright takes a look from the rear compartment. As director of biomedical marine research at Harbor Branch, Wright is down here with a veritable shopping list of sea sponges and corals, and an eagerness to discover new species.

Curing Cancer With a Sponge?

There is nothing modest about the goals here. Wright is looking for a cure: cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, AIDS. She'll take any of them.

"About 60 percent of all the drugs that are used in hospitals today have their origins in natural products," says Wright, noting that many of those come from tropical rain forests.

Hostile as the rain forests are, they are far more accessible than the ocean floor. Now that technology allows scientists to explore with submersibles, though, Wright and others are convinced the sea will yield equally important medical marvels.

"It will happen," Wright says. "I'm totally convinced that it will happen. You just have to keep plugging away, working hard and it will happen."

That sponge Liberatore spotted interests Wright. She wants a sample. Liberatore maneuvers the sub a few feet away and then grabs a black box covered in switches. With the intensity of a teenager playing on his Xbox, Liberatore manipulates the sub's external arm. He moves the huge claw over the sponge and then lowers a giant scoop, grabs the sponge and pulls the arm to the front of the sub where a series of Plexiglas boxes sit ready to be loaded with samples. The sponge is dropped inside.

Wright is quick to point out that sponges are some of the most primitive animals on the planet -- little more than a collection of cells. But Wright and other scientists believe they may be the route to the next generation of medical discoveries.

"Sponges don't actually have the ability to move," she explains patiently, "so that means they need to find ways to defend themselves and protect themselves. They use chemicals to do much of that, and we can take advantage of that and use those same compounds to try, for example, to kill cancer cells."

Wright says the chemical compounds found in the sponges, snails and coral are unlike anything found on Earth's surface. She's hoping that one of them will yield a compound that kills surviven, a protein found only in human cancer cells. A discovery like that is her dream. But she cautions that even if it were found, it would take a dozen years of testing and analysis before it could hit the market.

The first drug to come from the sea is Prialt. It was found in a deep-water snail and is a potent painkiller said to be a thousand times more powerful than morphine. A new cancer drug from a deep-sea sponge is expected to get Food and Drug Administration approval this summer. It attacks tumors. Twenty-two other drugs from the deep are in various stages of development.

As the sub moves forward, the terrain begins to slope upward. There are clusters of coral, and huge rocks and then an immense cliff. We float up to a plateau covered in thickets of coral. Suddenly a massive fish swims right at us. It looks like it is four- or five-feet long. Liberatore says it is a grouper, and in a moment we are surrounded by dozens of them.

It is pure Cousteau.

But while we're all marveling at the fish, Wright is still focused on the sponges and coral.

"All right, the motherload," Wright exclaims from her perch in the rear compartment. "Oh my, look at that."

She asks Liberatore to grab a sample of a very smooth, very large sponge that looks something like a Grecian urn or a flower vase. Wright is eager to analyze the compound that keeps it so smooth -- a poison that keeps predators from eating it or attacking it.

As Liberatore takes a sample of the Grecian sponge our every move is being watched warily by a cluster of crabs. They scamper and scramble the moment they feel threatened. But Liberatore's giant water vacuum is no match. He nabs a half dozen for scientists on the ship who asked him to bring back an assortment of sea life.

After three hours on the ocean floor, Wright and Liberatore have collected dozens of samples.

It takes 30 minutes to reach the surface, and when we do a giant crane is lowered over us and we are lifted onto the ship's deck.

A dozen scientists descend on the front of the sub, delicately removing the samples. In the ship's lab they are catalogued, photographed and examined under a microscope before they are frozen for transport back to the Harbor Branch labs on the mainland for more detailed analysis. If a promising compound is found, Harbor Branch will strike a deal with a drug company for more detailed study.

"That's gorgeous, isn't it," said marine biologist Charles Messing as he eagerly grabbed a little creature called a feather star from one of the buckets.

These missions are always filled with surprises. The feather star hasn't been seen in this area before.

Meanwhile, Wright looks over her sponges and corals, wondering if this time she's found something significant.

"A wonder drug from the sea," she says with a smile. "That's what we're looking for."