Sea snail compound reduces cancer risk

Published 1 October 2019
Kirsten Benkendorff with sea snail dicathais in lab Professor Kirsten Benkendorff holding the sea snail Dicathais.

The remarkable ability of a small Australian sea snail to produce a colourful purple compound to protect its eggs is proving even more extraordinary for its potential in a new anti-cancer medicine.

Southern Cross University researchers together with colleagues at Flinders University and Monash University have isolated one compound in the gland secretions from the Australian dogwhelk sea snail (Dicathais orbita), which has not only antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities but powerful anti-cancer properties.

The results have been published in the journal Scientific Reports. The lead author is Southern Cross University post-doctoral researcher Dr David Rudd.

Natural compounds from marine and terrestrial plants and animals are valuable sources of current and future medicines for human health, says Southern Cross University marine scientist Professor Kirsten Benkendorff, who is also researching the snail’s anti-inflammatory properties.

“In this latest research we have not only shown that a specific snail compound can prevent the formation of tumours in a colon cancer model, but we were also able to use sophisticated technology to trace the metabolism of the compound inside the body,” says Professor Benkendorff.

“This is very important for drug development because it helps demonstrate the absence of potentially toxic side-effects.”

Using the latest mass spectrometry technology, the research team has been able to pinpoint the lead active compound which, in future, could be put to good work.

Along with tracking the active compound inside the body to confirm it reaches the colon where it has the anti-tumour effect – which is important for oral drug delivery – the snail compound comes from a class of compounds called ‘indoles’ which are commonly found in both natural plant medicines and some pharmaceuticals.

“We were able to use the fact that snail compounds contain bromine, which acts like a unique fingerprint, to trace how these types of compounds are metabolised inside the body and identify some potentially toxic metabolites from the crude extracts that were not found with the pure snail compound,” Professor Benkendorff says.

“This research is very important for understanding the safety of these types of natural compounds for human medicine.”

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of the 9.6 million cancer deaths every year, with the World Health Organization reporting 862,000 deaths in 2018.

“After a decade of work, we have found an active compound derived from the substance produced by the mollusc’s gland which could be used as a preventative in bowel cancer,” says Flinders University senior scientist Professor Catherine Abbott who coordinated the animal model.

Professor Mary Spongberg, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at Southern Cross, says the findings represented a new frontier.

“This research highlights Southern Cross University’s growing reputation at the intersection of marine science and natural medicine, and signals that the future of cancer treatment may not sit in medical schools or with big pharma.”

Dicathais orbita’s natural medicine or medicinal food potential was further supported when Professor Benkendorff’s research team cooked the snail and found the amount of its main active ingredient increased.

Professor Benkendorff has spent more than two decades researching the bioresource value of molluscs such as snails, oysters and octopus.


Paper details:

The publication ‘Mapping insoluble indole metabolites in the gastrointestinal environment of a murine colorectal cancer model using desorption/ionisation on porous silicon imaging’ (2019) by DA Rudd, K Benkendorff, C Chahal, T Guinan, OJR Gustafsson, B Esmaeelian, H Krysinska, L Pogson, NH Voelcker and CA Abbott is published in Scientific Reports (Springer Nature).

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