Marine Medical Miracles


Plato stated "The sea cures all ailments of man". To the ancient Greeks, the image of Aphrodite rising from the sea was beautiful because of the nutrients that the sea plants provided her. Today, sea plants still provide beauty to people and to the world.

Biodiversity provides the natural foundation for the production of diverse chemical compounds used to treat human diseases. Over recent years, marine organisms have attracted much attention as potential sources for medicine. The discovery, development and production of medicine from marine bacteria, fungi, microalgae and sponges have become important, that is why programs have begun to evolve around linking academic marine scientists with biomedical researchers in the pharmaceutical industries.

Here, we shed some light on a few examples of existing miraculous cures found in underwater treasure troves.

Cod fish livers are processed to make cod liver oil, a nutritional supplement with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids,(1) vitamin A and vitamin D. Omega-3 helps prevent and fights heart disease, cancer, depression, Alzheimer's disease, ulcers, diabetes, hyperactivity and other diseases; and increases the ability to concentrate, as well as the energy level of the body. Cod liver oil is widely taken to ease the symptoms of arthritis.(2) It was commonly given to children, because the high levels of vitamin D proved to prevent rickets.(3) In addition, it is one of the chemical components of diaper rash ointment because vitamins A and D are used for treatment of irritation.


Chitosan, derived from chitin; the key component of the shells of crabs, lobsters and shrimp; is used for making creams because of its ability to retain moisture. Its properties allow it to rapidly clot blood; that is why it has recently been used in bandages and other hemostatic agents.(4)

Calcitonin-salmon, a man-made version of the hormone calcitonin found in salmon, is used as a substitute to human calcitonoin produced by the thyroid gland.(5) Bone is in a constant state of remodeling, whereby old bone is removed by cells known as osteoclasts, and new bone is laid down by cells called osteoblasts. Calcitonin inhibits bone removal by osteoclasts, and promotes bone formation by osteoblasts. Calcitonin-salmon hormone is used for treating osteoporosis, Paget's disease(6) of bone and hypercalcemia (high blood calcium levels).

The venom of some cone snails, such as the Magician cone, Conus magus, shows much promise for providing a non-addictive pain reliever 1000 times as powerful as, and possibly a replacement for, morphine. The first painkiller Ziconotide(7) derived from cone snail toxins was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in December 2004 under the name Prialt. Other drugs are in clinical and preclinical trials, such as compounds of the toxin that may be used in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease,(8) Parkinson's disease,(9) and epilepsy.

Alginate, present in the cell walls of brown algae as calcium, magnesium and sodium salts of alginic acid, is widely used for pharmaceutical purposes. Calcium alginate is used in the production of burn dressings that help healing and can be removed less painfully than conventional dressings. In addition, seaweed provides other health benefits, such as iodine supply, necessary to maintain good thyroid function and prevent goiter(10) and potent vitamins and minerals for healthy skin, eyes, liver and bladder.

Source: Shutterstock

Another example is Trabectedin, an anti-tumor agent widely used in the treatment of soft tissue sarcoma.(11) It was derived by extraction from the sea squirt.(12)

The use of natural coral graft substitutes(13) derived from the exoskeleton of marine corals has become widespread. The structure of the commonly used coral, Porites, is similar to that of cancellous bone(14) and its initial mechanical properties resemble those of bone. The high content calcium carbonate of these corals has been shown to be biocompatible; osteoconductive(15) and biodegradable(16) at variable rates depending on the exoskeleton porosity, the implantation site and the species. Coral grafts act as an adequate carrier for growth factors and allow cell attachment, growth, spreading and differentiation. When applied appropriately and when selected to match the resorption rate(17) with the bone formation rate of the implantation site, natural coral exoskeletons have been found to be impressive bone graft substitutes.

The medical miracles of the sea are not only found in marine living organisms, but they are also found in certain properties of the sea water itself. The Dead Sea, a landlocked lake, is an ancient wonder that has healed, cured, and inspired mankind for thousands of years. It has provided humanity with rich minerals, building materials, healing salts and mud. The concentration of salt and minerals in the Dead Sea is greater than that of any ocean; that is why no creature can live in it; yet, this extremely high mineral concentration makes the Dead Sea a major center for health research and treatment.

The Dead Sea contains over 21 minerals, 12 of which are found in no other sea or ocean. It has the highest concentrations of bromide, magnesium, calcium, silica, sodium, and potassium of any natural body of salt water in the world. The most famous natural health product of the Dead Sea and its region is the Dead Sea Black Mud, loaded with minerals and skin-healing properties. It is highly effective in the treatment of many diseases such as psoriasis,(18) eczema(19) and arthritis. This mud today is shipped around the world for people to enjoy its benefits in their own homes.

At present, there are some 11,000 marine-derived natural products compared with more than 155,000 natural, terrestrial products. The secrets of the sea are miracles waiting to be discovered by medical science. The marine world offers an extremely rich resource for novel compounds and represents a great challenge that requires inputs from various scientific areas to raise the marine chemical diversity up to its therapeutic potential.



  1. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids necessary for human health, but the body cannot produce them. They are supplied through food, such as fish, salmon, tuna, and halibut, other seafood including algae and krill, some plants, and nut oils.
  2. Arthritis is the inflammation of joints.
  3. Rickets is a deficiency disease that affects the young during the period of skeletal growth. It is characterized by soft and deformed bones, caused by failure to assimilate and make use of calcium and phosphorus normally due to inadequate exposure to sunlight or Vitamin D deficiency.
  4. Hemostatic agents are substances that are used to stop bleeding.
  5. Thyroid gland is a small gland, shaped like a butterfly, located in the lower part of the neck. Thyroid hormones released by this gland deliver energy to cells of the body.
  6. Paget's disease is a chronic disease of bones characterized by their great enlargement with bowing of the long bones and deformation of the flat bones.
  7. Ziconotide is an analgesic agent used for the amelioration of severe and chronic pain.
  8. Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disease of unknown origin that results in progressive memory loss, impaired thinking, disorientation, and changes in personality and mood.
  9. Parkinson's disease is a chronic progressive neurological disease mainly occurring in later life and is characterized by tremor of resting muscles, rigidity, slowness of movement and impaired balance.
  10. Goiter is the swelling of the thyroid gland that occurs when the gland is not functioning properly.
  11. Soft tissue sarcoma is a form of cancer that develops in the connective tissue.
  12. Sea squirts are a group of underwater saclike filter feeders animals living mostly on the ocean floor.
  13. Graft substitutes are substances used to replace missing or defective natural bone.
  14. Cancellous bone is one of the two types of osseous tissue that form bones. It typically occurs at the ends of long bones, close to joints and within the interior of vertebrae.
  15. Osteoconduction occurs when the bone graft material serves as a scaffold for new bone growth that is perpetuated by the native bone. Bone-forming cells from the margin of the defect that is being grafted utilize the bone graft material as a framework upon which to spread and generate new bone.
  16. The term biodegradable is used to describe materials that decompose through the actions of bacteria, fungi, and other living organisms.
  17. Resorption rate is the rate at which the bone-breaking cells known as osteoclasts break down bone and release the minerals, resulting in a transfer of calcium from bone fluid to the blood.
  18. Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease characterized by circumscribed red patches covered with white scales.
  19. Eczema is an inflammatory condition of the skin characterized by redness, itching, and oozing vesicular lesions which become scaly, crusted, or hardened.

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**The original article was published in the PSC Newsletter, 1st School Semester, 2010-2011 issue.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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