February 27, 2009

Bioscience to help the border and the world

By Mariana Martínez Esténs

Doctor Alexei Fedorovish Licea Navarro works surrounded by sharks and sea snails, hoping to reveal their secrets and turn them into powerful treatments to cure diabetes, tuberculosis, breast cancer, as well as arthritis, drug overdose or possible biochemical terrorist attacks.

Licea is the head of the Marine Biotechnology Department at Higher Science and Education Center in Ensenada (CICESE), among his most recent triumphs is the discovery of an enzyme fund in sea snails; the enzyme has been found to attack breast cancer cells.

His investigation might seem similar to that found in Cuba with the blue scorpion, but the research in the Caribbean country are centered toward supporting the immunological system of cancer patients, while doctor Licea’s research hopes to “neutralize” dangerous cells, without harming the rest of the body.


Dr. Alexei Fedorovish Licea Navarro, with sea snails in hand, is experimenting with the snails and the anti-bodies of sharks to cure cancer and other diseases. Photo courtsey of de Cicese.

Licea first noticed that cancer cells have different ionic channels than normal cells, and figures if a drug can attack such channels it can be more efficient and not harm healthy cells, like current cancer treatments.

“[This difference] makes it for a great target to fight cancer: if you attack through channel, you attack the cancerous cell but not the rest of them. It would be smash hit!” he says.

His recent finding of the enzyme attacking the breast cancer cells is an important step in medical research across the globe. For now, the enzyme is being tested in laboratory mice, but it is already the hope for the future.

Licea is simultaneously working with the antibodies of sharks; hoping this will be useful for the treatment of auto-immune diseases such as arthritis, psoriasis, and to help lower the rejection in cornea transplants.

“Shark antibodies are amazing molecules” explains Licea,” they are so different because they are very stable, —you can heat them up and they don’t die—, so they have great advantages in order to create a drug that can withstand any weather.”

“Besides, they are tiny!” he explains, still with child-like amazement, “shark antibodies can get into places mammal antibodies can’t; they can be used to neutralize proteins and stop the process of swelling.”

He hopes his work with anti-bodies can help in poisoning cases, drug overuse, —accidental or not—, as well as quickly neutralizing cases of bio-terrorism where anthrax, botulism or smallpox are present.

His work might be getting worldwide attention, but it can also mean great hopes for the California-Baja California region, where tuberculosis is prevalent and rising.

This border region is especially vulnerable to TB because people from all over the world come and go every day, bringing with them new strains of the bacteria, that mix with local strains and create bacteria strains that become drug resistant.

“Our research has led us to find fascinating molecules that destroy the bacteria, even if they are from a drug resistant strain,” Licea explains.


From Lab to pharmacy

Scientific research in Mexico has to overcome many hurdles, including lack of proper science education and insufficient funding for investigative research. But one added problem has been the lack of coordination between science and pharmaceutical companies.

But Licea and his team have overcome such hurdles, and they are seen as potential creators of drugs. They have recently signed an agreement with Silanes Laboratories in order to get funding for the development of original bio-technology.

Silanes is a Mexican pharmaceutical company, —founded 65 years ago—, willing to finance to lines of study; first the creation of a a shark “anti-body library” and another in the study of the toxins found in marine animals.

“I know it seems science takes a long time to develop” explains Licea, “but it is an exhilarating process, and if we succeed we could develop a drug that will help millions of people, and humanity as a whole”.

For now, Licea will keep being surrounded by sharks and snails but also by a dozen of avid students, sharing their discovery process.

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