Newsweek misses the memo: you can't discover the cure for cancer in an organism that has already gone extinct.

Credit: PJM

I was flipping though a copy of Newsweek today and stumbled upon this story by Michael Behar on the search for new drugs derived from marine life.  What’s in the story itself is interesting enough.  Many of the drugs we rely on come from nature.  As the Newsweek article notes, “about 60-plus percent of all drugs are natural products, modified natural products, or mimics of natural products.”  Now scientists are increasingly exploring the chemicals produced by marine creatures.

Last year, Israeli scientists identified a sea sponge that contains an antibiotic for fighting a type of potentially deadly fungal infection; other researchers announced they’d found a substance in Red Sea coral that targets skin cancer. Trabectedin—a chemotherapy drug modeled after a chemical discovered in sea squirts—has been FDA approved. And just last week, the FDA also approved eribulin mesylate, a synthetic form of a substance derived from a sea sponge, to fight advanced breast cancer.

But it was what was missing form Behar’s account that brought me up short: any suggestion that we might loose marine life to extinction.  Overfishing, ocean acidification, and pollution all threaten to drive marine species into oblivion; among the most vulnerable to these threats are corals, one of the very classes of organisms cited by the article itself. 

The possibility of great medical advances is just one of the many reasons to fight extinction.  As the the framers of the Endangered Species Act in the House of Representatives commented nearly forty years ago when passing that landmark law:

Who knows, or can say, what potential cures for cancer or other scourges, present or future, may lie locked up in the structures of plants which may yet be undiscovered, much less analyzed? More to the point, who is prepared to risk those potential cures by eliminating those plants for all time? Sheer self-interest impels us to be cautious.

It would have been nice for Newsweek to have at least acknowledged the risks now faced by our oceans, and the risk humanity runs by ignoring them.