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Deep Impact - Chris Ireland

Deep Impact

U of U researcher Chris Ireland searches for new cancer drugs in the depths of the ocean.

By Jason Matthew Smith

If a pharmacological researcher is lucky—very lucky—he may see one of his discoveries move from the field to the clinic in his lifetime. But the numbers are daunting: Only one chemical compound in a thousand will advance to human testing in clinical trials, and the average time from discovery to approval for most drugs is in excess of 20 years. And even if a compound runs the FDA’s gauntlet of clinical trials, the chance of a drug’s not being up to snuff once it’s released run pretty high. There’s a one in five chance that it will need to be recalled or relabeled within 25 years.

Simply put, the odds are stacked against researchers like the U’s Chris Ireland. Since about 1980, Ireland, professor and chair of medicinal chemistry, has been on a hunt for an effective cancer drug produced from marine organisms—sea sponges, to be exact. “It’s oftentimes two steps forward, two steps back.… Biochemistry in living organisms is extremely complicated,” he says. But Ireland is determined to unlock the secrets of sea sponges, and to find ways that their chemical compounds may benefit those afflicted with cancer.

Because sponges are primitive animals lacking an immune system, they must use chemicals to ward off predators or disease. That has proven to be a boon for pharmacological researchers.

Here’s how it works: “If a sponge is attached to a rock, it can’t move,” Ireland explains. “Now, if it gets crowded, or if something starts to overgrow it, it can’t move to the suburbs, if you will. So, oftentimes the sponge will secrete chemicals around the outside of its body that stop the growth of the adjacent animal. The secretions don’t necessarily kill the animal, but they do inhibit the ability of that animal to grow. Many of the compounds we see in sponges work by the same types of biochemical pathways that are used in tumors to promote their rapid growth.”

Hence, for more than 20 years, Ireland and his U of U team have applied the idea of a chemical compound that inhibits growth to their research into finding a cancer drug based on the chemicals produced by sponges.

Once a year, Ireland jets halfway around the world to the nutrient-rich seas of the Western Pacific—the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Northern Australia—to extract chemical compounds from sponges so that he and his lab can analyze the chemical process at work. Diving in such pristine seas, he says, is a “fringe benefit” of the job.

Today, Ireland continues to plumb the depths for medicinal compounds, one sponge at a time.

The ocean runs in his veins. Born in San Diego, Ireland was on the beach nearly every day of his childhood. And with Scripps Institution of Oceanography—one of the world’s foremost centers for marine research—located there, it seemed fitting for him to enroll. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t gotten in,” he says. “The ocean was just part of my life.”

Ireland eventually received a doctorate in oceanography from Scripps, specializing in research on the manner in which marine animals communicate using chemicals. He went on to conduct postdoctoral work at the University of Hawaii and the University of Illinois. And that’s when his career made a left turn—from mollusks to pharmacology.

By the time Ireland began looking for a faculty position, jobs in oceanography had evaporated, and funding for research in the field was scarce. At the same time, scientists were just becoming aware of the potential for developing new drugs from marine animals. Before 1980, it was more common to examine botanical sources for potential drugs, primarily because humans had amassed a great deal of history and literature about the healing powers of plants. In short, researchers had more experience with plants, but very little with sea life—except regarding poisons. An abundance of anecdotal information existed about toxic organisms (think fugu, or puffer fish) from the sea, but not much about beneficial ones.

Ireland was offered a position at the University of Connecticut in the College of Pharmacy as a temporary replacement teacher. There, he began to apply for grants to look at marine animals as a source of cancer drugs, becoming one of the first scientists in the nation to actively investigate marine creatures for their healing potential, before heading to the University of Utah in 1983.

“I came to the U in ’83 with a five-year plan,” he says. “I thought I wanted to go back to San Diego or to Hawaii because those were the two centers of marine research at the time.” But, he says, “when I got here, I recognized the quality of the facilities—we were just starting the comprehensive cancer center here—so there were tremendous opportunities for collaboration.”

And a major component of that collaboration is the opportunity to work with his wife, Mary Kay, a sponge biologist, whom he met in the Philippines while on a research trip. The couple now has four children, the youngest of whom just graduated from the U.

Today, Ireland continues to plumb the depths for medicinal compounds, one sponge at a time. He has formed close partnerships with the University of the Philippines and the University of Papua New Guinea, among others, training scientists and educating students in those institutions. And in the process, Ireland has become more than a marine biologist/pharmacological researcher and teacher; he has become an advocate for treating other nations and their resources with profound respect. “It’s ironic that the United States has all these natural resources, but for geographical reasons we have very little biological diversity around our coastlines,” he notes. “So there is a great opportunity for us to explore the biology of other nations’ coasts. But I think there is also a real responsibility on our part to recognize that those genetic resources belong to those countries.”

And in the end, the scientific leaps made by Ireland and his team will benefit all humankind, regardless of borders.

Jason Matthew Smith is editor of Continuum.

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