An OSU research team, led by Pharmacy professor Bill Gerwick, has found algae off the coast of Venezuela that may have potential in treating pain, epilepsy, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Researcher on undersea exploration
Researcher on undersea exploration

Bill Gerwick, a professor in OSU’s College of Pharmacy, has spent much of the last decade studying marine blue-green algae. In some locales, that same algae is known as “pond scum.” The species known as Lyngbya majuscula, found in a bay near Kalki Beach off the Venezuelan coast, however, is gaining a much more dignified reputation.

Gerwick and his research team recently extracted a compound from the algae that is one of the most powerful neurotoxins they had seen. Dubbed “kalkitoxin,” the compound has the potential to lead to new treatments for pain, epilepsy, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Gerwick said he believes the compound works by blocking sodium channels, thus preventing nerve cells from firing off their electrical signals. “Kalkitoxin is incredibly potent, which means it likely binds with greater affinity,” Gerwick said. “When that happens, there is a good chance that you can create a pharmaceutical that has greater specificity of drug action. “It is,” he said, “a valuable discovery.”

This isn’t the first time that the OSU researchers have found success in mining drugs from the sea. Several years ago, Gerwick discovered a compound called “Curacin A” in different samples of Lyngbya majusscula that had powerful anti-cancer properties. In fact, Curacin A was remarkably similar to taxol.

Since that early discovery, Gerwick has expanded his research lab and now works with a team of 10 faculty and graduate students as OSU continues to become a leader in the promising field of mining drugs from the sea.

“To think that such promising compounds come from what essentially is pond scum is amazing and ironic,” Gerwick said. “It is a great example of that old saying that one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure.”

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