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Marine biologists unlock polar secrets to fight disease

Story Highlights

• Scientists from 60 countries working at Earth's polar regions
• UAB researchers at Palmer Station, Antarctica, studying marine life
• Marine life defense mechanisms may provide keys to cancer fighting drugs
By Marsha Walton
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(CNN) -- They may not have the charisma of penguins or polar bears. But plants and animals like seaweed, sea stars and sponges may be just as important in understanding the Earth's polar regions.

During International Polar Year, (IPY) scientists from more than 60 countries are working at the far ends of the Earth, looking for clues about climate change, weather forecasting, even cures for diseases.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham will spend February to May of this year at Palmer Station in the Antarctic. They are looking at how the defense mechanisms of marine plants and animals may provide keys to cancer fighting drugs.

"The vast majority of our work has been in trying to understand how organisms like seaweeds and invertebrate animals like sponges that cannot get up and run away when something is trying to eat them use chemistry to deter their predators," said professor Charles Amsler, a marine ecophysiologist.

He says understanding this "chemical warfare" is leading to some promising drug development. The team has shared its findings with the National Cancer Institute and the Cystic Fibrosis Research Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"We do have a compound from a sea squirt -- a sponge-like, blob-like organism that sits on the ocean bottom and doesn't move," said professor James McClintock, a marine invertebrate zoologist.

"It turns out this compound is very active against melanoma and it is currently being pursued by a drug company," he said. McClintock said Antarctic plants and invertebrates have adapted well over thousands of years to the freezing conditions of the region.

But he says climate change could have a dramatic effect on many of these polar creatures.

"For example, marine invertebrates, and especially their offspring, are sensitive to even very small changes in seawater temperature. Should global warming result in warming of the Southern Ocean, then metabolic and growth processes in these organisms and their offspring may be significantly altered," said McClintock.

Ice diving

McClintock and Amsler have traveled more than 20 times to the Antarctic. Both are veteran divers in the icy waters, with views of nature few people ever get to experience. Amsler said visibility is sometimes 500-600 feet, about three times what a good dive in the Tropics might provide. "Swimming with penguins is just one of the most spectacular things you could ever imagine," said Amsler. (Sights and sounds from the bottom of the world)

"In 300 plus dives I've only had four or five chances to do it. They are spectacularly acrobatic. We think of them as flightless birds but they are spectacular flyers in their own medium which is under the surface of the sea," he said.

Working at the bottom of the world still includes a certain amount of isolation. But technology has made dramatic improvements, both in scientists' professional and personal lives. (Full story)

"My first trip to the Antarctic in 1983, I can remember my only means of communication with my fiance was by Western Union Telegraph that cost about four dollars a word," said McClintock. "This year I show up at Palmer Station and what is given to me when I arrive? A satellite cell phone."

When they return from their dives or a day in the laboratory, the UAB scientists can post information on their blogs, put photographs on Flickr, and videos on YouTube. Views of their work are at

"An educational outreach program has become possible, that is now touching people around the world and exciting them about the science that is going on here in Antarctica, and the style of life that we live here," said McClintock.

Camp life

Daily life for these Antarctic researchers also has evolved over the years. Water comes from a desalinization process. There's a gymnasium and many of the comforts of home. Forty four people are now living at Palmer Station, in a dorm setting with two people per room.

"There are 16 men sharing one shower, which is a little tight sometimes in the morning," laughed Amsler. "It's a family," said McClintock. "It doesn't matter whether you are a scientist or a carpenter or a cook, or a plumber everybody pitches in.

Everybody cleans up the station together. It's a very innovative approach to living together and it works very well," he said. Globally, more than 200 scientific projects will be part of the IPY agenda.

Oregon State University oceanographer David Carlson, who is serving as director of the International Polar Year program office, says technology enables scientists on ships, at universities, or in polar regions to share data almost in real time.

That's quite a leap from the last IPY in 1957-58. But he says there's still plenty of mystery and possibility in the Arctic. "Working in polar regions is hard; it's challenging; it has an edge to it.

These people want to do great science, and they also see the Poles as places of awe and wonder," said Carlson.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham are exploring new possibilities for cancer treatment in Antarctica.



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