How Endangered Coral Reefs Could Potentially Cure Cancer

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Published on June 1st, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

The following post was originally published on Martha Stewart’s WholeLiving.com

My aunt Sylvia. My dear childhood friend, Danielle. Three of my grandparents. A close friend’s husband. My colleague. All of these people near and dear to my heart have battled cancer, some successfully, some not.

Chances are we all have someone close to us who has gone through this terrible disease. We walk, run, bike, and swim at events in their honor to support efforts to find a cure. And we should; it’s that important.

But there’s something else we can do that can help preserve the building blocks of new, and potentially life-saving, medicines: We can save our coral reefs.

Coral reefs have an incredible diversity of life—from plants, animals and fungi down to the tiniest micro-organism. And this diversity holds so much potential for medical research. In fact, we are 300 to 400 times more likely to find that next big medical breakthrough in our reefs than on land.

The drug Ara-C, for example, has helped save the lives of millions of people with leukemia—including Boston’s Arden O’Conner (in video, above). This medicine was derived from a compound discovered in a Caribbean reef sponge. Now it’s created synthetically in a lab, so we don’t need to keep going back to the reefs to maintain our supply of it. The important thing was that the sponge existed for us to study in the first place.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what our reefs can offer medically. As Dr. Bruce Chabner, director of clinical research for the cancer center at Massachusetts General Hospital put it, “The sea could very well hold the building blocks of drugs that could treat, or even cure, cancer. We don’t know. But if we lose the reefs, we’ll never find out.”

The problem is that our reefs right now are not healthy. Most of them—75 percent in fact—are in serious trouble from things like overfishing, coastal development and pollution. These are things we can change.

Now is our time to do something about this. Saving coral reefs means saving ourselves. To find out more about what is being done, and more importantly, what you can do, check out The Nature Conservancy’s Adopt-A-Reef program. The easiest thing you can do is tell a friend about how important this amazing habitat is and what it is doing for mankind. It brings a whole new meaning to “life-giving water.”

Stephanie Wear is a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team. She is working to improve tools that build resilience in coral reef communities so that coral reefs survive the impacts of a changing climate.

Get instant access to her current trip to Palau (including an amazing picture of a giant clam) by following @stephwear on Twitter or her visiting new website http://stephwear.com/.

(Image: Coral reef in the Caribbean. Image credit: © Nancy Sefton)

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