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The Voice

Sea squirts and sewage
published: Thursday | June 24, 2004


Martin Henry

PROFESSOR IVAN Goodbody must be smiling. Researchers have extracted a promising cancer-treating chemical from Ecteinascidia turbinate. OK. Ecteinascidia turbinate is a family member of little marine animals called sea squirts, or tunicates. And this one is Caribbean. The sea squirts are tubular or roundish little creatures which remain attached by stalks to rocks in the sea either singly or more usually as colonies. They tend to be brightly coloured and bunches of them can be seen attached to coastal rocks in places like Port Royal on the Kingston Harbour side.

With all the pollution of the harbour, I don't know how many of them are still there. Although sessile, that is anchored in one place, the sea squirts are in fact animals. The group makes up the most primitive types of vertebrates, the animals with backbones. They don't quite have backbones themselves, but a precursor structure related to a real backbone. They are tunicates because they are wrapped in an outer jacket or tunic. And they are sea squirts because they can eject water from their bodies with great force.

Before retiring from the UWI, Professor Goodbody had made these little guys the subject of much of his research efforts in Marine Biology and had developed substantial international expertise on tunicates. But why bother to study such insignificant little creatures that don't do anything but sit there and squirt from time to time? Well now, the accumulated pure scientific knowledge generated by several researchers like Goodbody is paying off in practical results.

There is now a worldwide search for new pharmaceuticals from living organisms. And people are looking at unorthodox sources like tunicates and sponges in the sea and little bushes in the forest, not just big and familiar plants and animals. Blessed by geography, the tropics have far more biodiversity than temperate regions. The tropical coral reef and rain forest are two of the richest places on earth for diversity of species.

ENDEMICITY

Our own island of wood and water has an extraordinary level of endemicity; that is, having species of plants and animals found here and nowhere else on the planet. The preservation of biodiversity is something which has a very practical human end to it. Which species as yet untapped may be some new source of a life-saving pharmaceutical or some other useful product?

Professor Goodbody, the UWI and the Government of Jamaica are not likely to be smiling all the way to the bank, though. The cancer treatment from sea squirts work was done in Europe by a team of Dutch, French and Spanish researchers financed by the European Union. I don't know how the UWI work figures in all this but we have made major contributions to tunicate biology over many years. The pattern of the past is that both our basic research and our raw materials get taken to patented commercial stages by others without benefit to us. I have a note here from a former leading public sector environmental manager that the export of sea squirts from Kingston Harbour for research was approved in the last decade.

The European cancer researchers have found that an alkaloid, Ecteinascidin-743(ET-743) extracted from the Caribbean sea squirt Ecteinascidia turbinate has potency in treating sarcomas. Sarcomas are a rare form of connective tissue cancer that kills victims within six months to a year, including nearly 4,000 Europeans annually. Although sarcomas respond to chemotherapy, which shrinks the growth of the tumours, a cure has not yet been found. But the discovery of the alkaloid chemical, Ecteinascidin-743 (ET-743) is a breakthrough for medical science. The drug is being tried as a chemotherapeutic agent and has shown promising results in patients where other treatments have failed. It has enormous potential for treating a range of cancers, including breast cancer.

BREAKTHROUGH FINDINGS

These breakthrough findings are scheduled to be published in the Marine Drugs journal and I am drawing from a pre-publication news release.

Sewage has had a devastating impact on Kingston Harbour where tunicates dwell. And a few years ago there was a big dust fight between residents of Harbour View and the Caribbean Cement Company. I was, therefore, more than delighted to receive in my inbox an item, 'SRC commissions multi-million sewage treatment plant'. "THE Caribbean Cement Company Limited has commissioned its $5.2-million sewage treatment plant that produces clean water that can be recycled, reused or returned to water-bodies without harm," the report says. The Scientific Research Council designed the plant which uses anaerobic (oxygen-free) technology to treat sewage in an environmentally friendly manner. According to Julia Brown, the young and sharp waste management expert and process development manager at the SRC, some of the issues that were taken into consideration before the construction of the plant were cost-effectiveness, sustainability and environmental soundness.

"We looked at low cost in terms of implementation, low maintenance cost.. When we put this system in, there is little or no manual input to the system, little or no moving parts to the system and most importantly, energy should not be involved in the operation of the system," she said. The SRC delivered at a third of the cost of the next lowest bidder and the sewage treatment system was developed in Jamaica by the Council with German technical assistance. It is producing recycled water whose level of purity exceeds NEPA quality standards some six-fold. SRC chairman, Conrad Douglas is proud of the system because "it addresses waste management and therefore environmental management. It also addresses water conservation and energy conservation, and it has tremendous potential for the generation of energy as a by-product of the operation."

Martin Henry is a communication specialist.

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