Marine fungi such as those growing on algae and corals generate powerful substances that could be used to target tumours. An EU-funded project has identified three particularly promising compounds and developed ways to produce them on an industrial scale - without damage to the fungi's natural habitat.
© R. Schmaljohann & J.F. Imhoff
The Marine Fungi project has found 600 new strains of these organisms and analysed the substances they produce to see if they could be used to treat cancer. It has identified three particularly promising compounds, one of which is about to be patented, says project coordinator Professor Johannes F. Imhoff of the Helmholtz Zentrum für Ozeanforschung Kiel.
The project partners have also found ways to breed sufficient amounts of the required strains to permit commercial exploitation. This advance dispenses with the need to source the required fungi directly from the sea, ensuring a steady, sustainable supply of identical compounds.
Awash with anti-tumour compounds
The aim of the Marine Fungi project, which ended in April 2014, was to identify new strains of marine fungi, to isolate the compounds they produce and to screen these substances for anti-tumour activity. To obtain these strains, the partners used a variety of sources: marine sponges from the Mediterranean, corals from Indonesian waters and seaweed collected off the coast of Chile.
This briny harvest enabled them to obtain hundreds of new strains of fungi and establish a list of several thousand potentially relevant compounds, which also included substances identified by earlier research. All of these compounds were then analysed to pinpoint the best ones for use in cancer treatment.
Powerful substances from the sea
“The strategy is usually that you select and select and select again to achieve at the end a shortlist of the most promising ones,” says Imhoff. “We identified quite a number of new compounds with activity against tumour cells, applied strong criteria for selection, and at the end we chose three of these compounds for actual preclinical experimentation.”
He adds that one of these substances, which could be used to target specific types of cancer, should be of particular interest to the pharmaceutical industry. The project partners are in the process of patenting this discovery and are engaging with businesses that could take this compound into clinical trials and carry out the required drug development.
Businesses embarking on this process would additionally benefit from another Marine Fungi achievement: the project has developed a way to cultivate the required amounts of fungi in the lab as opposed to sourcing fresh material directly from the sea, which was only done initially to study the various organisms. The new production method, which involves fermentors, can be scaled up to yield the industrial quantities needed for commercial applications.
This advance, says Imhoff, removes an obstacle that had held back a number of earlier attempts to exploit potential antitumor compounds gained from marine macroorganisms. Harvesting marine organisms from the habitat to secure a steady and substantial supply had turned out to be impractical, notably because it would have been too difficult to obtain the same materials every time. Such processes could also be harmful to the environment.
The Marine Fungi process, in contrast, supports reliable, predictable and sustainable large-scale production from identical strains. The consortium is convinced that its insights can be used to forge new weapons for the fight against cancer, and it is exploring a variety of options to build the necessary alliances.