An Ocean of Opportunities: SA Marine Natural Products Symposium explores SA’s future in marine natural products
Marine flora, fauna and microorganisms can provide leads for marine-derived agents that can be used in a variety of therapeutic areas. And there was consensus at the 1st South African Marine Natural Products 2017 Symposium that the country has the right ingredients in place to become a leader in the development of marine natural products (MNPs).
Held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 1-2 September 2017, the symposium was an opportunity to gauge where MNP research is at in South Africa and help build a more close-knit and supportive MNP community.
To that end, organizers had invited 60 or so participants from the recognized hubs of MNP research in South Africa, including biologists, biotechnologists, chemists, geneticists, pharmacists and taxonomists, among others. Leading lights of marine natural products research spoke at the symposium, including Prof William Gerwick and Dr Lena Gerwick of the University of California San Diego (UCSD), Professor John Bolton (University of Cape Town), Professor Rosemary Dorrington and Dr Clint Veale (Rhodes University), Professor Vinesh Maharaj (University of Pretoria), Dr Shirley Parker-Nance (South African Environmental Observation Network), Dr Toufiek Samaai (DEA) and UWC’s Professor Marla Trindade.
The symposium was supported and funded by the National Research Foundation and the national Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).
Topics covered everything from the identification of South African marine life in “hotspots” like Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape, to the use of old and new technologies to identify compounds, and the application of red-algae compounds for the possible treatment of triple-negative breast cancer (the leading and difficult-to-treat cancer in especially black women in South Africa).
“We’ve never had a meeting like this where all the people involved in marine natural products research could get together, and just start chatting,” said symposium organizer, Associate Professor Denzil Beukes of UWC’s School of Pharmacy. “This is also an opportunity to see where we can possibly collaborate, and where we would like to go in the field.”
As curtain raiser to the meeting, one of the leading MNP chemists in the world, Professor William Gerwick – of the Centre for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UCSD – presented a public lecture, titled The Search for Drugs from the Sea.
In his lecture, Gerwick gave an overview of some of the success stories in marine natural products-based drug discovery and introduced some of the cutting edge tools his group has developed in order to facilitate the search for drugs from the sea.
Something worth thinking about: 70% of currently employed pharmaceutical agents, were derived or were inspired by a natural product from a variety of sources, including terrestrial soil bacteria, plants, animals - and to an increasing degree, marine life forms. In fact, 13 major current pharmaceutical agents have a marine origin or inspiration, making the search for marine life for new lead compounds both effective and efficient compared to other sources.
Gerwick also spoke, as he did again in closing the symposium, of South Africa’s competitive edge in the field. This includes, he explained, state-of-the-art facilities and technologies, dedicated researchers, and an enthusiastic cohort of students. And, of course, the country’s incredible marine biodiversity.
But one key component is innovation.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s South Africa or San Diego, we always need to push ourselves, to ask good questions. To think: how can we do this project more innovatively, how can we do something more efficiently, what does it need?”
That sentiment was echoed by Professor Michael Davies-Coleman, Dean of UWC’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, in whose honour the symposium was dedicated as a belated celebration of his 60th birthday.
Hailed by many as the godfather of MNP research in South Africa, Davies-Coleman spearheaded research in the field as professor of organic chemistry at Rhodes University from the early 1990s.
Beukes and Gregory Hooper were the first of Davies-Coleman’s PhD students to focus on MNP chemistry. That team made some pioneering discoveries in the country, including the identification of new antimicrobials and alkaloids from marine sponges.
Universities Coming Together To Explore Marine Natural Products
In the 1970s, when the potential for MNP research in South Africa was first mooted, much of the exploratory work had been done by international institutions, supported by pharmaceutical companies. The context has changed since then – those companies no longer foot the bill for such fundamental research, for one.
Instead, universities are leading South Africa’s advance. But to make real progress, local institutions would have to build collaborations with leading international institutions like UCSD (“like the Mecca of marine natural products,” as Beukes says).
Student exchanges with those institutions would be invaluable for South Africa, added Davies-Coleman.
“We need to work in real partnerships, and get our young people across to the best labs in the world,” he noted. “And they’ll come back with new energy.”
Some of that new young energy was represented by UWC postgraduate student Lerata Mookho, who presented her project, Discovery of Cytotoxic Natural Products from South African Marine Sponges, discussing the steps taken to isolate compounds from South African marine sponges, from the collection of samples, to the extraction, screening, isolation and purification of compounds, and examining how the structures were put together.
Her research showed that prior screening of samples is important for prioritisation and speeding up the process of the discovery of active compounds - and that indeed South African marine sponges have potential cytotoxic compounds which can be useful in drug discovery and development.
In many ways, the research being done in South Africa is of world class standards, Beukes believes.
“However, we are still working in isolation,” he says. “If we are serious about discovering that first marine-derived drug from our tremendous biological diversity, then marine natural products scientists in South Africa will have to work much closer together. Hopefully, this symposium is a step in the right direction.”
There is still much to be done, however.
“It’s a tremendously exciting time to work in this field and in terms of our marine biodiversity,” Beukes notes. “We haven’t even scratched the surface.”