Humble Australian sea snail may hold key to curing cancer


White Rock sea snails. Source: ABC

White Rock sea snails. Source: ABC

Written by Paxton Roth, edited for online by Tegan Atkins

Chemicals from the White Rock sea snail found along Australia’s east coast may hold the key to treating cancer.

A compound from the egg masses of the marine mollusc was proving incredibly powerful at tackling normal cancel cells and chemotherapy-resistant lymphomas.

Researchers from the University of Woollongong said the next step was to make a drug for humans.

“To minimise any side effects and make the compound into a drug we need to look at safety and we need to sure it’s not toxic to normal cell lines,” Danielle Skropeta, Associate Professor in chemistry at the university, said.

The tiny sea snail may be more powerful at overcoming chemo-resistant cancers than current drugs on the market, Dr Kara Perrow, Group Leader of the Targeted Cancer Therapeutics Lab at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, said.

“When we treat our multi-drug resistant or our chemo resistant cancer cell lines with a particular concentration of this class of molecule we’re able to kill 100 per-cent of that population of cancer cells after 48 hours but if we use a commercially available and clinically used drug, doxorubicin, which is commonly used to treat breast cancer, this compound is only effective at killing 10 per-cent of that same population of cells,” she said.

According to Dr Perrow, multi-drug resistance was currently a huge clinical problem in treating cancer but the unique characteristics of the snails meant the molecules worked differently.

“By evolving these chemical defence mechanisms they are essentially a rich source of what we call bio-active compounds and these bio-active compounds have been shown to be able to inhibit the growth of bacteria but also cancer cells,” she said.

Professor Skropeta said they were able to adapt the snail eggs to increase their potency.

“What we’ve done is further develop and tweak the chemistry around those natural compounds that we isolated from the egg masses and continually improve the potency of those compounds so that they become more and more toxic selectively to cancer cells over normal tissues or non-cancerous cells,” she said.

The research team received funding from the Illawarra Cancer Council but it would cost nearly a billion dollars to get research through to make it available to cancer patients.

Professor Skropeta said she was excited about the potential and said there was so much more to be discovered from our marine life.

“Here we’re learning from something you wouldn’t really notice when you’re down at the beach, some little sea snail, and it’s got this amazing chemistry,” she said.

“It’s got a potential drug that’s active against drug resistant cell lines or a drug resistant cancer that’s just absolutely amazing.”