Sea sponges to the rescue!
Dr Paul Teesdale-Spittle and his colleagues are exploring whether special sea sponges only found in New Zealand have a secret lethal weapon to kill cancer cells, in particular lymphoma, melanoma, breast and ovarian cancers. He is also trying to improve on Mother Nature and make a modified form of the chemical produced by these unique sponges. We recently caught up with him to ask him about his latest project:
Your project is looking at sea sponges – how can they help beat cancer and what on earth made you look at these sea sponges in the first place?
My colleague, Peter Northcote, is an expert natural products chemist who specialises in marine organisms and he studies what effects the chemicals they produce may have. Sea sponges are sessile organisms – that means they are unable to move to avoid or fight off predators. Organisms like this often produce powerful chemical defence molecules instead. Whilst some defence molecules may simply taste unpleasant, many are toxic as they have to protect the sponge from all sorts of potential predators. The molecules frequently target fundamental biological processes that cells need to survive – just what we want in a new cancer treatment. Although the sponge is not trying to protect itself against humans with these compounds, the types of fundamental processes that they target are the same in so many organisms that we see activity against human targets.
How did you end up coming to Worldwide Cancer Research for funding?
Pateamine, the compound Peter isolated from the sponge, has a rather unique way of controlling cell function. Many groups around the world have been interested in the way it does this, but the world supply of the compound is tiny, and this funding will allow us to produce more of the naturally occurring pateamine. Worldwide Cancer Research’s global focus was an excellent match for our desire to get pateamine into the labs of an international network of cancer researchers.
What do you hope to achieve with your grant?
At its most simple level we want to make more of this exciting natural product available for cancer researchers. We will collect samples of the sponge and grow them up for harvesting and we will also make a synthetic version of pateamine in the laboratory. Whilst we are doing this, my colleagues Joanne Harvey, Gary Evans and I are going to lead the preparation of some variations of pateamine that we hope will be even more toxic against the human form of its target inside the cell.
We don’t know if pateamine will be a cancer drug in its own right, or whether one of our new variants will be. However, along with progressing the compounds, we learn more about the way pateamine controls cancer and open the door for the development of other drugs to control cancer in the same way.
What drives you as a scientist?
I really enjoy finding out how things work, and applying that knowledge to discoveries that will help people. Working in cancer research is really rewarding, we all know people who have been affected by cancer, so it is a privilege to work in an area that may help cancer sufferers and their families in the future.
What keeps you sane outside of the lab?
I am actively involved in teaching at Victoria University, and really enjoy teaching future generation of scientists. Outside of that, I am quite involved with orienteering. I find the combination of physical and mental challenge the sport gives to be a great way to “switch off” from other things.
What are you normally doing when you get your ‘moments of inspiration’ for new research ideas or hypotheses?
These “eureka moments” usually happen when I am able to take time to reflect, rather than focus on immediate tasks. That means they often happen whilst I am hiking (“tramping” here in New Zealand) or cycling to work. These moments also occur in conferences, which can spark all sorts of new connections - and often have enough “uninteresting” talks to start putting these connections together!
Have you always wanted to be a scientist?
Near enough, yes. There was a bit of a track record in my family of doing science – my grandfather got his PhD in 1929 – so it didn’t seem an odd choice. I was far more interested in how things worked at a molecular level than I was in following the family business, which was making the bellows for specialist cameras!
Where do you hope cancer research will be in 20 years time?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had solved all we need to know! However, I think we will still be doing research relevant to cancer. I expect a number of difficult cancers will still not have a treatment that we are happy with, and as life expectancy increases we may be faced with new challenges to cell function provided by age. I anticipate that much more of our thinking of cancer research will be driven by understanding and influencing biological networks in cells and tissues. I expect that will be much more research on technology-based detection and control of cancer.
What do you think the treatment of cancer will be like?
I suspect it will be a blend of many types of treatment – traditional small molecule drugs, biologics and immunotherapies, individualised to the patient and their particular cancer. Perhaps these will be supplemented by micro- or nanotechnologies designed to control nutrient input to tumours, detect early stage tumours and metastasis and monitor progression.
This is a great example of the type of innovative research Worldwide Cancer Research are dedicated to supporting and we wish Dr Teesdale-Spittle the best of luck with his project.