Research firm touts Newfoundland and Labrador seaweed as cancer inhibitor

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A cancer researcher says he’s cautiously optimistic about an East Coast ocean technology company’s apparent discovery of properties in seaweed off Newfoundland and Labrador that inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells, but warns the company still faces many hurdles.

Oceans Ltd. announced Wednesday it has been studying the seaweed’s potential commercialization in pharmaceutical products for seven years, and has sampled about 70 seaweed species in Newfoundland and Labrador’s coastal waters.

It said studies that used an extract from the seaweed on mice have “conclusively” demonstrated effectiveness in inhibiting the growth of breast cancer cells.

Dr. David Hoskin, a professor of pathology at Dalhousie University who was not involved with the company or its research, said the product appears promising, but added there have been many natural products that have inhibited growth of human cancer in mice.

“To the best of my knowledge, none of them have made it to the clinic,” said Hoskin, who researches natural products for treatment of breast cancer.

“I tell my students, ‘I guarantee if you bring me a mouse with cancer, I can cure it.’ It’s pretty easy to cure cancer in a mouse. In a human, that’s a whole new ball game. That’s where a lot of the disappointments in the development of new cancer treatments have arisen from.”

Oceans Ltd. president and CEO Judith Bobbitt said Wednesday its unique molecule has already undergone laboratory and animal testing at the National Research Council Canada, in accordance with Ottawa’s drug protocol.

She said there are patents pending, and the company is now looking to partner with pharmaceutical companies to fund further research.

“This is significant,” said Bobbitt in an interview. “It’s a novel molecule we found in a natural environment that nobody knew existed.”

Hoskin said Oceans Ltd. will have to convince a company that its product is more effective and more economical than anything else the company has coming down the pipeline, and get it to agree to fund extensive clinical trials.

“The only entities with deep enough pockets to fund those trials are big pharmaceutical companies,” said Hoskin, who is also the endowed chair in breast cancer research at the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation-Atlantic Region.

Oceans Ltd. said following treatment, the mice showed no obvious abnormalities related to metastasis, including in internal organs with high potential for metastasis such as livers, lungs, axillary lymph nodes and diaphragms.

It said the molecule structure has been dubbed GorgonaDosi, and it is now being synthesized in a research lab for pharmaceutical development.

Bobbitt said the molecule comes from a rare species of cold-water seaweed, and because Oceans Ltd. has defined the molecular structure, it is now able to make the seaweed synthetically.

Oceans Ltd. has not yet shared the research with medical journals, as patents are pending.

Hoskin said he hopes the research is submitted at some point so its scientific validity can be assessed.

“Obviously a company has a vested interest in putting the best possible spin on the potential product,” he said.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s Minister of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation Christopher Mitchelmore was on hand for the company’s press conference Wednesday, and praised the initiative.

Oceans Ltd. is comprised of meteorologists, physical oceanographers, biologists, biochemists, chemists, and engineers who investigate the marine environment and its applications, with offices in Halifax and St. John’s.

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