Wednesday, March 17, 1999

Scientist to
lecture on drug
potential of
marine creatures

The UH professor at 83 still
researches marine organisms

By Helen Altonn


Paul J. Scheuer is 83 years old but still can be found investigating marine life in his laboratory on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus.

The UH professor emeritus believes marine organisms are bound to yield important drugs. They haven't been studied long enough but "there's little question about their potential," says Scheuer, a pioneering Hawaii researcher on chemicals from marine organisms.

"I'm confident," he said. "That's why I'm staying in the business."

Scheuer will give a public lecture at 7:30 tonight at the Waikiki Aquarium on "Treasures from the Sea: A look beyond Sand, Salt and Fish."

His talk is part of a series of lectures on ocean discoveries by Hawaii researchers.

An internationally known scientist and author, Scheuer since the 1950s has studied marine toxins and chemical compounds isolated from marine plants and animals.

"Traditionally, of course, virtually the only things people have gotten from the ocean were sand, salt and fish and a few invertebrates that could be caught relatively easily," he said in a brief preview of his lecture tonight.

"By and large, much of what was in the ocean only got to be explored with the onset of scuba diving. Since the end of World War II, people have been able to find out more of what's in the ocean."

The science of organic chemistry over the past 300 years developed exclusively with higher terrestrial plants, Scheuer pointed out. The only history with the marine ecosystem was in Japan and southern China, he said.

"While island people of the Pacific -- Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesians -- did use a lot of marine organisms, they had no written language," Scheuer said. What he and others now are doing, he said, is following ecological leads from literature that certain animals, such as sponges, don't get eaten even though they have soft bodies.

"They don't swim, they have no physical defense. The notion is they must have chemical defense. That is generally the case," he said. "We follow these leads and when we have isolated pure compounds, we have them bioassayed for various activities."

The chemists also do random collections of snails, sponges and other soft-bodied sea animals, "the kind of things that can't swim away and don't have any spines or shells to protect themselves," he said.

They're trying to determine the animals' chemistry and see if there is any physiological activity, he said.

"We all hope that whatever we discover will be useful and will make a contribution, but chances, of course, are very small," he cautioned, noting many compounds fall by the wayside in trials.

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