Researchers say the Gulf of Mexico is filled with a hidden treasure — treasure that could help cure deadly diseases.

University of Florida scientists are tracking bacteria they say could become medicine's newest secret weapon.

In the warm waters off Craig Key, Hendrik Luesch, a UF College of Pharmacy associate professor, is snorkeling for algae.

"That's a Cyanobacteria, exactly the stuff we were looking for,” Luesch said. “It's not visually appealing but very useful.”

The cyanobacteria are slimy and are thought to cradle an active ingredient essential for next-generation cancer drugs.

"The ocean itself holds great promise to if not cure, treat a variety of diseases," Luesch said.

Luesch and his team of researchers harvest Cyanobacteria in Ziploc bags and collect it by the bucket full before taking it back to their Gainesville lab.

The bacteria are survivors and fighters. Scientists believe they've fended off prey for billions of years.

"Cyanobacteria are presumed to be the oldest organisms on earth," Luesch said. "They have presumably evolved chemistry to deter predators, and those chemical parts are what we exploit the bacteria."

Luesch's team found that the bacteria's chemical makeup has a benefit against a devastating human predator: Cancer.

"It down-regulates or inhibits the growth factors and the receptors, giving it the one-two punch to make it potent in inhibiting cancer growth," Luesch said. "It can reactivate certain genes that are silenced in cancers, such as tumors"

Cyanobacteria are even more valuable because unlike similar species these bacteria are smart. They're able to target bad cells, sparing healthy ones.

The bacteria appear potent against blood tumors and colorectal cancer. The next step is to chemically reproduce the Cyanobacteria in labs. That would ensure enough supply to mass-produce the drug, which has been billions of years in the making.

"We and others are overcoming these hurdles in the ocean to discover new molecules with benefits to patients,” Luesch said.

Luesch said he expects to soon enter into licensing talks with biotech companies. Clinical trials could come next.

It's expected to take up to 15 years to bring the drug to market.

For more information about the UF College of Pharmacy's marine projects, click here.

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