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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2005, 08:02 GMT 09:02 UK
Gower sponge may fight cancer
Gower peninsula
The sponges were collected from the Gower peninsula
Sponges collected from rock pools in south Wales could be a source of new drugs to combat breast and lung cancer, according to new research.

A team from the Welsh School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University found sponge extracts contained compounds which can block cancer growth.

Sponges from the Gower Peninsula were studied in the research.

Medicinal compounds from marine organisms have traditionally been found in species in warm or tropical seas.

Preliminary lab tests have shown that extracts from the Hymeniacidon sponge are highly effective at inhibiting growth in human breast cancer and some lung cancer cell lines.

Lead researcher Dr Alex White said the sponges had been dried out, and then ground into a powder.

Hymeniacidon sponge
Sponges have tiny pores on their outer walls through which water is drawn
Cells in the sponge filter out nutrients from the water as it is pumped through its body
Sponge cells perform a variety of bodily functions and seem to be more independent of one other than the cells of other animals

This enabled the scientists to extract compounds to test on cells - but at this stage it was still unclear exactly which of the extracts had a positive effect.

Dr White said: "The sponge is made up of a complex mixture of compounds.

"The next step is to try to characterise the natural products responsible for the anti-proliferative properties and to identify lead compounds for further development.

"It is not uncommon to find extracts from marine organisms, especially sponges, which have this type of activity.

"But British sponges, and their medicinal properties, are largely unexplored and have untapped potential for the discovery of new drugs."

Rich potential

Dr Kat Arney, of Cancer Research UK, said: "Creatures and plants from the sea are a rich source of potential anti-cancer agents, and these results suggest there are possible new treatments hiding within British sea sponges.

"But the research is still at a very early stage and these experiments have only been done in laboratory-grown cells.

"Scientists need to discover precisely which molecules within the sponge are responsible for the effects and how they work.

"They will then need to find out if they have an anti-cancer effect on tumours in humans."

Dr Sarah Rawlings, of the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, agreed.

She said: "Although this research is certainly fascinating, it's too early to say whether compounds from these sponges could be used to treat breast cancer patients.

"More work is needed but studies like this are to be welcomed as they are important in helping find possible new treatments for the future."

Dr Emma Pennery, a nurse consultant with the charity Breast Cancer Care, said: "We know from talking with women affected by breast cancer every day that this research will be met with interest."

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