Medicines from the Coral Reef Ecosystem

Humans have been attempting to understand and use oceanic resources since ancient times. Coral Reef products have been traditionally used for treating various ailments in Taiwan, Japan, China, and India. In Europe, where the comparatively deep-water coral reefs remained unexplored until later ages, the benefits of Coral and Coral Organisms became known only in the ninth century with the westward spread of Islam; the invading Asiatic Muslims brought with them highly sophisticated Medical knowledge and methods thus far unknown to the Europeans. The Persian Philosopher Al-Kindi, writing in 830 A.D., mentions the use of Coral in his book "Medical Formulary", and in Penaranda de Duero in Spain, where the world's oldest pharmacy was established in 1685 and has now been turned into a Museum, jars of powdered Coral are displayed and its various health advantages are documented in the reference book "Palestra Farmaceutica Quimico-Alencia" written in 1792 by Felix Palacios. The nineteenth century oversaw an extraordinary advance in marine research; in one instance, a Scientist named Dr. Bottard, who was researching the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, actually injected himself with Stone-fish poison to study the paralysis caused by the toxin! These days, with high-tech methods available for chemical analysis, researchers fortunately don't have to go to such lengths. Marine Pharmacology, in its modern form, has gained in scope and importance with technological and medical advances and the need for newer, more effective treatments.

Modern medicines are manufactured from a wide-ranging variety of chemicals that are usually obtained from divergently placed natural sources. In recent times, marine sources have begun to take precedence over the terrestrial ones as the former produce relatively more kinds of the required chemicals and, as in the case of Coral Reefs, these can all be obtained from the same area. Coral Reefs are among the most biologically varied ecosystems on Earth and are home to incredibly diverse kinds of plants and animals that live together in mutually beneficial relationships. Amongst them probably, even now, are certain species that haven't even yet been discovered!

Apart from Corals, which have Calcium and 74 other life-enhancing minerals, some of the Coral Reef organisms that hold special importance for the Pharmaceutical Companies are invertebrates like Sponges, Tunicates, Bryozoans, and Octocorals that are permanently attached to some surface. Since they are immobile, it becomes necessary for them to produce chemicals for either attracting prey or repelling predators, for reproducing, and many other purposes. Many of these chemicals have been found to have important antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties, and are therefore highly sought.

Formerly, large numbers of marine organisms were required to obtain very small amounts of the needed chemicals and Corals too were indiscriminately harvested. In both cases, this badly affected their marine population and thereby the delicate Reef ecosystem. Nowadays, fortunately, this isn't necessary. Genetic engineering has made it possible to extract the required DNA from a minuscule tissue sample. This DNA is then cloned and produces the necessary chemical in greater amounts. It is also now possible to grow aquacultures of some organisms in laboratories. This is good news for the marine ecology as well as medical research. However many bio-active marine products are extremely complex and will require still more research before they can be prepared artificially.

The marine chemical extracts, before being cleared for medical purposes, are first tested for effectiveness on animals. If the extract can competently reduce inflammations or kill cancer cells or do whatever is expected, it is then tried out on humans. If it proves as beneficial here and shows no toxic side effects, it stands a chance of going into commercial production. All this is a very long, expensive process.

At present, marine chemical extracts like histamines, hormones, antibiotics, and secosteroids have helped create drugs like AZT, Ara-A, Ara-C, and Dolostatin 10, which combat AIDS, Cancer, Asthma, Arthritis, and Inflammatory Disorders. They are also proving beneficial for people with heart, kidney, and liver transplants. Corals have been used in human bone-grafting and Cone Snail poison has been used to produce a painkiller.

It is necessary to develop new, more effective drugs as many diseases have unfortunately become resistant to commonly used drugs. With over 7000 potentially useful marine species being currently studied by scientists, Marine pharmaceutical research offers promising possibilities. In the next few years, it may be possible to avail of new therapeutic drugs for treating or, hopefully, even curing life-threatening illnesses like AIDS and Cancer. For such benefits, however, the underwater medicine chest must first be adequately protected and conserved.

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