CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dr. David Horgen, and Brandi Kivi, a senior in marine biology, look over an algae sample in the microbial culture lab at Oceanic Institute. Horgen is a Hawaii Pacific University professor of chemistry who heads a team that extracts chemicals from marine organisms and tests them to see if they contain compounds that help human cells recover from injury.
HPU looks for cures in sea life
Researchers test for chemicals that can help brain injuries
Hawaii Pacific University researchers are testing marine organisms for chemicals that could lead to drugs to treat brain injuries.
Half of all new prescription drugs being investigated or marketed in the past 20 years were developed from what are called "secondary metabolites" of plants and animals, said team leader David Horgen, associate professor of chemistry.
Secondary metabolites are organic compounds usually used for defense against predators or parasites.
For example, he said, painkillers morphine and codeine were developed from the opium plant, and Prialt, a chemotherapy drug, came from chemical toxins produced by the cone snail. Horgen said his group primarily is looking for compounds from marine organisms that affect the function of ion channels, which allow calcium and other ions to flow into a cell.
"Calcium is a trigger. The flow of calcium into a cell triggers the cell to do various things, depending what kind of cell it is," he said.
The researchers are collaborating with HPU affiliate Oceanic Institute, the University of Hawaii Center for Marine Microbial Ecology and Diversity, and the Queen's Medical Center Laboratory of Cell & Molecular Signaling.
They obtain marine organisms from the UH center and collect others themselves.
Organisms are cultured and processed in the laboratory to extract secondary metabolites, which then are tested for potency on a strain of human cells provided by colleagues at Queen's.
Horgen's student researchers in the College of Natural Sciences use a scanning fluorometer at Oceanic Institute to determine the effectiveness of each secondary metabolite in blocking calcium or other ions from entering the cells.
Chemical makeup of effective compounds is analyzed at HPU's Windward Hawaii Loa campus using mass and magnetic resonance spectrometers.
Horgen's team identified cyanobacteria in a species of blue-green algae as the source of the chemical used to develop the chemotherapy drug dolastatin 14. They also found a closely related compound in the cyanobacteria they call malevamide E.
"We're studying the effects of malevamide E on cells, which may lead to understanding of how these compounds kill cancer cells," Horgen said.
He previously isolated a potential cancer-fighting compound called malevamide D. He holds the patent on it with UH colleagues and a pharmaceutical company in Spain called PharMar.
Alissa Arp, HPU vice president of research and dean of the College of Natural Sciences, said the university wants to increase research activities and will start its first graduate course in the sciences this fall.
Horgen, who has a cell culture facility at Oceanic Institute and a natural-products chemistry lab on HPU's Hawaii Loa campus, will have a leading role in the graduate program in marine and environmental sciences, she said.