Updated 02 August 2017

Could this small, green sponge be the cure for cancer?

A small green sponge found in Alaskan waters could be the first effective weapon against pancreatic cancer, researchers said.

A small green sponge discovered in dark, icy waters of the Pacific off Alaska could be the first effective weapon against pancreatic cancer, according to researchers.

Pancreatic cancer, with particularly aggressive tumours, is notoriously difficult to treat.

"One would never have imagined looking at this sponge that it could be miraculous," Bob Stone, a researcher at the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said in a briefing by phone.

Where the sponge can be found

Stone discovered the sponge, dull in colour, called "Latrunculia austini" in 2005 while on a seabed exploration expedition in Alaska.

It lives on rocks in patches at depths of 70-219m.

Lab testing has shown that several molecules in this sponge selectively destroy pancreatic cancer cells, said Mark Hamann, a University of South Carolina researcher working with Fred Valeriote of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit.

"This is undoubtedly the most active molecule against pancreatic cancer that we see," said Hamann. "Although there is still much work to be done, it marks the first key step in the discovery and process of developing a treatment," he said.

In the United States, 53 670 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in 2017 and more than 43 000 people will die. In South Africa there are 4.34 deaths from pancreatic cancer per 100 000 people.

New cancer treatments

There has been progress on other fronts. A new vaccine to treat melanoma skin cancer patients was shown to be feasible, safe and consistently immunogenic (producing an immune response) in treating the patients, Health24 previously reported. This vaccine could replace chemotherapy.

Breast cancer surgery for example may become more effective since mechanical engineers and pathologists invented a microscope that could potentially assist surgeons to remove all traces of tumours. 

Pancreatic cancer progresses slowly, a situation which leaves patients in a tough position as late diagnosis means there is little chance for successful treatment.

Survival rate

Patients' chances of survival at five years for pancreatic tumours are only 14%, according to the American Cancer Society.

"I've looked at 5 000 sponge extracts over the last two decades," Valeriote said. "In terms of this particular pattern of pancreatic and ovarian cancer selective activity, we've only seen one (other) sponge with such activity, and that was one collected many years ago in Indonesia."


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