SCIENCE DISCOVERY: Professor Kirsten Benkendorff holding the sea snail Dicathais (credit Southern Cross University)
SCIENCE DISCOVERY: Professor Kirsten Benkendorff holding the sea snail Dicathais (credit Southern Cross University)

What do sea snails have to do with new anti-cancer medicine?

A SUBSTANCE produced by Australian sea snails to protect its eggs is proving extraordinary for its potential in a new anti-cancer medicine.

Southern Cross University researchers together with colleagues at Flinders University and Monash University have isolated one compound in the gland secretions from the Australian dogwhelk sea snail (Dicathais orbita), which has not only antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities but powerful anti-cancer properties.

Southern Cross University marine scientist Professor Kirsten Benkendorff researches the snail's anti-inflammatory properties and said natural compounds from marine and terrestrial plants and animals are valuable sources of current and future medicines for human health.

"In this latest research we have not only shown that a specific snail compound can prevent the formation of tumours in a colon cancer model, but we were also able to use sophisticated technology to trace the metabolism of the compound inside the body," says Professor Benkendorff.

"This is very important for drug development because it helps demonstrate the absence of potentially toxic side-effects."

The research team has been able to pinpoint the lead active compound which, in future, could be put to good work.

Along with tracking the active compound inside the body to confirm it reaches the colon where it has the anti-tumour effect - which is important for oral drug delivery - the snail compound comes from a class of compounds called 'indoles' which are commonly found in both natural plant medicines and some pharmaceuticals.

"We were able to use the fact that snail compounds contain bromine, which acts like a unique fingerprint, to trace how these types of compounds are metabolised inside the body and identify some potentially toxic metabolites from the crude extracts that were not found with the pure snail compound," Professor Benkendorff says.

"This research is very important for understanding the safety of these types of natural compounds for human medicine."

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of the 9.6 million cancer deaths every year, with the World Health Organisation reporting 862,000 deaths in 2018.

Professor Mary Spongberg, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at Southern Cross, says the findings represented a new frontier and highlighted SCU's "reputation at the intersection of marine science and natural medicine, and signals that the future of cancer treatment may not sit in medical schools or with big pharma."

Dicathais orbita's natural medicine or medicinal food potential was further supported when Professor Benkendorff's research team cooked the snail and found the amount of its main active ingredient increased.

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