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Neptune's Medicine Chest

To Scripps researcher Bill Fenical, the oceans are a tantalizing trove of potential anti-cancer drugs. It's all about the chemistry, he says.

May 18, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — You might never hear of Bill Fenical again. In the years ahead, though, you could owe him some of your good health. Perhaps your life.

Fenical probably won't join the ranks of those Communications Age nobles who transform convenience gadgetry and technological gewgaws into inconceivable wealth. Yet this chemist is hot on the trail of discoveries far more tantalizing.

William -- "call me Bill" -- Fenical, PhD, is out to cure cancer. Maybe prevent cancer.

Bill Fenical is a pioneer in an effort to beat other diseases that are rapidly -- alarmingly -- developing resistance to everything in the world's antibiotic medicine chest.

He is out to crack other maladies for which there are no cures at all.

And if Fenical, 64, doesn't achieve these things during his remaining years as a chief research scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he has blazed a trail that hundreds of others are rushing to follow. He's trained many of them himself. In this age when science is more corroborative and incremental than ever, Fenical is a pathfinder in the promising hunt for 21st century medicines from that vast, mysterious birthplace of life itself: the oceans.


It's a simple proposition: A medicine is merely a compound that repels or kills or somehow interferes with the organisms and processes of disease. In short, it is chemistry. Medicines from aspirin to penicillin are natural chemicals harnessed for the benefit of countless millions of humans.

The problem is that the terrestrial world has been scoured so thoroughly that science is running out of places to look and breakthroughs to count on. No significant new antibiotic, for instance, has been discovered in a generation. Bacteria, meanwhile, have been busy developing immunity to known antibiotics.

What makes Fenical's work promising is that there is so much chemistry at work in the undersea about which science knows so little.

"It's like opening a chest of new and exciting ideas," he says at his oceanfront laboratory overlooking the Scripps Pier. "This is, without question, going to lead to significant discoveries of drugs."

The oceans are not only the largest features of the planet; they are also the most bio-diverse. If you recall your high school biology, "genus" is the taxonomic group under which species of organisms are categorized.

Fenical and his team of researchers at Scripps have discovered and identified 15 genera of organisms never before known, thousands upon thousands of potential species. At that, Fenical says, they've barely started.

His lab has isolated and tested two compounds derived from marine organisms that are now undergoing human clinical trials as anti-cancer drugs. One of them, called SalA, is produced from previously unknown bacteria found in the mud of the deep sea. It is being tested on volunteer cancer patients for its potential to combat malignancy of the blood and bone.

The other, known as NPI-0058, is derived from a marine fungus that lives on seaweed. It is being administered to patients who have not responded to other treatments for its potential to counter aggressive tumors, such as those of the lung, breast and pancreas.

At least 13 compounds isolated by other laboratories are also in anti-cancer trials -- a process that can sometimes take just months to show promise but often years to perfect.

"We will look back and talk about the sea as the bountiful resource that saves human lives," said Bill Gerwick, a former student of Fenical's who has returned to UC San Diego's Scripps Institution to join his old mentor here at the recently expanded Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine.

With Fenical as director, the center draws from the work of 30 research laboratories at the schools of medicine and pharmacology as well as from marine scientists at Scripps. It represents a significant bid by the university to maintain its place as a global powerhouse in the field.

A stocky, avuncular man with a noble paunch, a cowboy mustache and a taste for aloha shirts, Fenical long ago realized that most people don't give much thought to medicines beyond the costs and side effects.

For this reason, Fenical tries to simplify the explanation behind his growing excitement about the undersea.

Consider the colorful and delicate creatures on a coral reef. Many are so brilliant they cannot help but call attention to themselves. Yet they survive. Some utilize thorns or shells for defense. Many rely on chemistry alone -- the same kind of natural warfare that the fungus Penicillium notatum uses to kill infectious bacteria, or, more crudely, that the skunk uses to fend off the coyote.

Those kinds of active chemicals form the basis for Fenical's research.

Collected during periodic expeditions, the chemicals are isolated, identified and tested against human pathogens: cancer cells, viruses, bacteria, fungi.

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