Unlocking Nature’s Cancer Therapies

Reading time: 2 minutes

Rachel Cherney

Nature is magnificent, simply put. It is indispensable, diverse, and more complex than we currently understand. Its diversity ranges from from the Mantis Shrimp, which can see millions of colors as compared to humans, to the Axolotl, which has the remarkable ability to regenerative any of the limbs. However, it is estimated that millions (or even billions) of species1 and over 80% of our ocean have yet to be discovered. 

Humans have been adapting nature’s evolutionary masterpieces, a practice better known as biomimicry, to develop building plans, military equipment, medicine2, and everyday objects like Velcro. Over time, nature has perfected its designs, giving us insights to create a more sustainable and accessible world. In the context of medical research, an area of high interest among researchers is drug discovery and design. Several drugs, such as penicillin, were originally discovered as molecules that are naturally produced in organisms. Identifying molecules produced by other organisms could greatly increase our ability to treat diseases and cancers. Cancer is a dreaded disease, with numerous types based on its origins and the organs it affects [see: Why Cancer is Hard to Treat]. Therefore, there is a need to find specific treatments for each cancer. However, the cost to discover, produce, and certify a single drug can be upwards of one billion dollars, according to a study published early 20203. Apart from the cost, drug discovery also takes time – which includes synthesizing new compounds, testing them, and getting them approved. Using nature as a starting point could save researchers both time and money.

Looking towards nature, scientists from the United States and Malaysia characterized molecules from an Indonesian Sea sponge. One molecule in particular, called manzamine A, was found to stop various types of cervical cancer cells from growing4. This reduction of cell growth was found to happen in two ways: through the inhibition of actively dividing cells and the promotion of the apoptosis (cell death) pathway. Importantly, manzamine A has also been shown to be extremely toxic to drug-resistant forms of malaria, indicating that manzamine A could be a therapeutic for multiple diseases. To date, there are at least ten species of Indo-Pacific sea sponges that produce a variety of molecules in the same class as manzamine A, suggesting that many molecules with anti-cancer properties remain to be found.

Edited by Bhavuk Garg


  1. Indiana University. “Earth may be home to one trillion species: Largest-ever analysis of microbial data reveals an ecological law concluding 99.999 percent of species remain undiscovered.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 May 2016.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3562250/ 
  3. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2762311
  4. The Marine Natural Product Manzamine A Inhibits Cervical Cancer by Targeting the SIX1 Protein
    Dev Karan, Seema Dubey, Lucia Pirisi, Alexis Nagel, Ivett Pina, Yeun-Mun Choo, and Mark T Hamann. Journal of Natural Products. 2020 83 (2), 286-295

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