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Stanford Report, April 12, 2000

Lowly creatures from the deep may help cure cancer and warn of pollution


They are slimy, wormlike and sometimes brainless creatures, but the strange organisms that inhabit our oceans, lakes and streams may one day provide a cure for cancer -- or serve as an early-warning system for the subtle effects of toxic pollution.

That was the message delivered by two Stanford scientists at the recent international meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Francisco.

Paul A. Wender, who holds the Bergstrom Professorship in Chemistry, presented his remarks during an ACS symposium on "New Prospects in Anticancer Agents for the 21st Century."

Researchers are scouring rainforests, deserts and ocean bottoms in search of wild plants and animals that produce regulators of enzymes capable of fighting diseases in humans.

Wender told his colleagues that isolating and synthesizing these exotic biochemicals has been a difficult yet exciting challenge.

"It's an absolutely fantastic time to be a chemist," he said, pointing to the large number of promising anti-tumor compounds recently discovered in ocean-dwelling invertebrates, such as sponges, sea hares, marine worms and bryozoa.

Of particular interest, he said, is a species of bryozoa called Bugula neritina found off the California coast (see illustration below).