Save a Reef, Save a Life

Coral reef off Fiji islands in the Pacific Ocean

Kerry Crisley is an Associate Director of Strategic Communications at The Nature Conservancy with a focus on our marine work.

My aunts Lorraine and Helen. My childhood friend, Amy. My grandfather. My neighbor, Bill. My colleague. All of these people near and dear to my heart have battled cancer, some successfully, some not.

And it’s not just me. We all have someone close to us who have 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.

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.

May is National Cancer Research Month, and much of the research that sustains our hope for a cure begins in our oceans.

Why? 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 3 to 4 hundred 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, such as Boston’s Arden O’Conner. Ara-C was derived from a compound discovered in a Caribbean sea sponge. And today, women battling breast cancer have a new weapon in Halavan, a drug derived from a sponge off the coast of Japan.

These medicines are now 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 was there 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 bad news is that our reefs right now are not healthy. Most of them – 75% in fact – are in serious trouble from things like overfishing, coastal development and climate change.

“If you look at a really healthy reef, it’s chaotic,” said Stephanie Wear, director of the Conservancy’s coral reef conservation program. “There are vivid colors – pinks, purples, reds and oranges – and fish are literally everywhere. If you’re snorkeling and only see a few fish, that’s not a healthy reef.”

The good news is that we can give our coral reefs a fighting chance. Wear is part of a global Conservancy team working to keep the healthiest reefs in good, stable condition and to figure out where and how degraded ones can be brought back to life. And she shares this science and methods in trainings with reef managers around the world.

It’s a big challenge. There’s no one silver bullet that can turn the fortunes around for an entire habitat. But if we all pitch in – from personal actions like adopting a reef, choosing sustainably-caught seafood to international collaboration on reef management and carbon emissions – our reefs will survive, and our own future will be better for it.

Friends and family of the author

[Top image: Coral reef off Fiji islands in the Pacific Ocean. Source: Daniel & Robbie Wisdom. Bottom images: Kerry Crisley and her childhood pal, Amy in kindergarten… and 37 years later, after beating breast cancer; Kerry’s Aunt Helen plays with Kerry’s daughter about seven months before she lost her battle with cancer. Source: Kerry Crisley/TNC]


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