Public Release: 

Florida frontier expedition

Tapping the unexplored ocean depths for biomedical resources

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

Harbor Branch's Johnson-Sea-Link submersible will take scientists to depths up to 3,000 feet off Florida's coast to hunt for marine organisms with biomedical potential

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FT. PIERCE, Fla., May 20, 2004 -- Scientists from the new state-funded Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology will spend the next two weeks exploring never before seen sections of deepwater coral reefs rich with life off Florida's east coast and the Keys. The team, with members from Harbor Branch Oceanographic and Florida Atlantic University, will be using Harbor Branch's Johnson-Sea-Link I submersible and scuba in a search for marine creatures that produce chemicals with the potential to cure human diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer's.

Amazingly, vast stretches of vibrant seafloor lay unexplored just a few miles from major ports such as Miami, and the team expects to make important discoveries as they tap these previously hidden biomedical treasure troves for the first time. FAU's Department of Ocean Engineering has been using an unmanned autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to map the area and has discovered some of the promising sites that will be explored using the submersible. Regular dispatches from the expedition and photos will be posted at Harbor Branch's @Sea website,

The Johnson-Sea-Link's robotic arm collects a sample from a deep-sea wall.

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"Based on past work we have every reason to believe that there are cures waiting in Florida waters for a number of diseases, the only limitation has been financial," says Dr. Amy Wright, director of Harbor Branch's Biomedical Marine Research program and a co-leader of the expedition. "Funding like this for the Center of Excellence is essential for pushing this research and Florida's marine biotechnology industry forward."

Similar expeditions by Harbor Branch off Florida and around the world have already yielded numerous chemicals that show great promise in fighting cancer, infections, and other afflictions. One, a compound called discodermolide, has proven an effective cancer cell killer, even in tumors that are resistant to Taxol®, one of the best treatments currently available for breast and other cancers. It is now in the first phase of human clinical trials as a treatment for many forms of solid malignancies such as pancreatic cancer.

Encouraging success stories such as discodermolide inspired creation of the Center of Excellence, which received approval from the governor and the legislature in 2003 for $10 million in funding. Such stories have also led to rapidly expanding interest at the federal level in such marine biomedical research. The recent public release of the historic U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report makes strong recommendations to the federal government to increase efforts to explore ocean waters with the expectation that this would lead to the discovery of numerous new drugs, among other benefits.

The Center of Excellence was created with $10 million in state funding in 2003. It is based at FAU and combines the expertise of Harbor Branch, Florida International University, Nova Southeastern University, the Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce, and several private companies.

The R/V Seward Johnson

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The overall goal for the Center of Excellence is to promote the discovery, development, and commercialization in Florida of new medicines and other products. Center funding is intended as seed money to further expand Florida's emerging marine biotechnology industry over the next two years with the goal of attracting longer-term funding from federal and commercial sources.

Besides funding one expedition per year, Center of Excellence money is being used to support graduate students that will expand the biotechnology workforce, to design and build a high-definition camera system that can be carried on an AUV to map new seafloor sites, and to purchase equipment that will greatly enhance member institutions' ability to rapidly and accurately analyze the pharmaceutical potential of new chemical compounds.

"We're really pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this joint program and to help build the marine biotechnology industry in the state of Florida," says Dr. Wright.

The expedition, the first for the Center of Excellence, will depart from Harbor Branch's Ft. Pierce campus on May 20 aboard the institution's Seward Johnson research vessel headed for deepwater reefs off the coast of North Florida. The team will then work its way south to Ft. Lauderdale exploring areas of rock and reef bottom that appear promising based on contours identified with sonar maps. From Ft. Lauderdale south through the Keys, the group will continue exploring areas as deep as 3,000 feet using the submersible, but will also use scuba to collect invertebrates from shallower reefs. They will return to Harbor Branch on June 2.

The team will use the submersible to video and photograph the sea life they encounter and to collect small samples of such organisms as sponges, soft corals and cone snails for further study. The scientists will test the potential of chemicals produced by these animals to fight disease first through simple experiments on board the ship and later with more elaborate tests in their respective labs. For instance, chemicals will be tested to determine if they kill cancer cells or effect the electrical activity within neurological cells, which can be an indicator of potential to treat pain or neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's.

Those chemicals that show promise will then undergo intensive studies to determine their chemical structure and the biological activity that gives them disease-fighting properties. Chemicals that continue to show promise throughout this process would ultimately be licensed to pharmaceutical companies for possible development as new drugs.


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