Diving into cancer treatment

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

By Joanie Morris For the Salisbury Post – CLEVELAND — Jim Redmond has been diving for more than 30 years, usually for fun to harvest lobster and grouper for food. This year though, he got to do something a little different.
“I had the opportunity to SCUBA dive with a couple of guys from the Florida Keys,” said Redmond. It wasn’t just any diving though. “They make their living collecting invertebrates for the American Cancer Society.”
You read that right. Redmond spent a week diving off the coast from Cape Lookout with Don DeMaria and Christian Boniface, who work with the National Cancer Institute to recover sea life that is used in cancer research. The research is funded by the American Cancer Society through donations and events like Relay for Life.
“They had hired my friend and college buddy, Jim Atack, to take them out on his catamaran ‘In Sea State,’ “ Redmond said. Since Redmond had a truck capable of pulling the large boat, Atack asked him if he’d like to go along on the trip. July 9-16, Redmond was off the coast, pulling in sea life samples to be used for cancer research.
“I had no idea at the time how much it would change my attitude, because I have always thought of diving as catching lobster and really big fish, not in terms of doing research for cancer,” Redmond said.
The men made several dives off the coast of Cape Lookout and several trips into the coastal marsh, looking for snails, crabs, clams and sponges.
“These men are looking for possible cancer cures,” Redmond said.
DeMaria has been diving with the group for 18 years. A resident of the Florida Keys, this is how he makes his living. DeMaria said research on the sponges and other sea life he collects is done at the National Cancer Institute’s national product branch at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md.
The samples DeMaria and his crew collect are split apart. Four voucher samples are separated from the initial sample — one is sent to a taxonomist, one to a doctor, one to the Smithsonian and DeMaria keeps the last. The rest of the sample is ground up at the national product branch and extracts are taken. He said the marine research is a fairly new concept to the institute. However, land-based research has been around for awhile.
The anti-cancer drug Taxol was created from plant research and even penicillin, taken by most people at some point in their lives, was derived from fungus. Recently, drugs derived from marine sources have been approved.
This is no snake-oil cure DeMaria and his crew are participating in.
Halaven, an injectable breast cancer drug, was recently approved for use in Europe. The drug is a chemotherapeutically active compound derived from the sea sponge Halichondria okadai that is believed to work by inhibiting cancer cell growth.
“The marine stuff looks real interesting,” DeMaria said by phone on Monday. It’s gaining so much popularity, the New York Academy of Sciences and the marine-based drug development company Zeltia S.A. hosted a symposium in May called “New Frontiers in Marine Drug Discovery.”
In his career, DeMaria has collected more than 10,000 marine samples for research. Of those, he said close to 1,000 have shown potential. But, he cautions, that’s just potential at this point.
“Just because it shows activity doesn’t mean it could (one day) be a drug,” he said. “They (researchers) don’t really share the results with us.”
DeMaria works closely with Dr. David Newman in Maryland on determining what marine life should be collected and which shows the most potential. Newman was unavailable for comment on this story.
Redmond has a vested interest in the work he was doing in July. His mother is a breast cancer survivor and his aunt is losing her six-year battle with breast cancer. Redmond said she relies on oxygen and morphine just to make the days bearable.
“I realize that many, many others are also suffering from the effects of this disease,” said Redmond. “Wouldn’t it be something special to say that you participated in an American Cancer Society research program that actually helped to find the ultimate cure?
“It’s a hideous disease,” he added. “I think there’s going to be a cure one day and maybe it will be found in the ocean.”
Whenever the cure is found — be it 20, 40 or even 60 years from now — Redmond said he’s proud that he set aside his grouper spear and helped be a part of the search.
“I wanted to go spear and I ended up helping these guys, and it meant much more to me than spearing,” he said. If given the opportunity, Redmond said he’ll definitely participate again next year. “People are working hard towards that goal (of a cure).”
Joanie Morris is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at 704-797-4248 or news@salisburypost.com.