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Ocean centers to dive into the mysteries of the deep. (Focus).

Hoping to unlock the veritable treasure chest of medicinal potential awaiting discovery in the depths of the world's oceans, the NIEHS and the National Science Foundation announced on 21 November 2002 a $6 million grant program that will establish four Centers for Oceans and Human Health (COHHs). These new centers will bring together experts in such fields as environmental epidemiology, public health, preventive medicine, ocean chemistry, and computational biology to conduct interdisciplinary research and technology development regarding the numerous potential benefits and risks posed by marine organisms. Each COHH will be either thematically or geographically organized and will support three or more related research projects, two or more facility cores, and several short-term pilot projects.

Marine organisms represent the world's greatest source of chemical diversity. As more than 50% of the drugs currently on the market include naturally derived ingredients, the study of marine organisms should lead to further discoveries of compounds for pharmaceutical purposes. It is estimated that most of the total number of marine species have yet to be discovered. COHH researchers will be working to locate and evaluate unidentified species and to establish new methods of culturing them for research and clinical purposes. They will also be studying the molecular mechanisms of marine toxins, which could aid in the development of drugs to block toxic processes and detect toxins in seafood.

A second focus of the centers will be waterborne diseases, a leading cause of death in children worldwide. COHH projects will concentrate on using genomic and proteomic approaches to determine the pathogenicity and biology of these organisms and to discover new and better means of detecting them in water and shellfish. COHH researchers may also use nearshore oceanography to study pathogen transport in areas of possible human exposure and to help local governments design and site new or replacement sewage and runoff systems.

Understanding the environmental conditions that promote large harmful algal blooms is yet another topic the new centers will address. Over the last 30 years the range and incidence of these blooms has increased along U.S. coastlines, and more work is needed to determine the potential impact of these outbreaks on human health [see "Toxic Tides," EHP 106:A326-A331 (1998)]. The potential pathways of the toxins produced by harmful algal blooms--which can cause various acute, subacute, and chronic human diseases, including neurotoxic and liver disorders--need to be identified so that therapies can be developed.

Although both agencies have been conducting related work for several years, it was not until after a December 2001 roundtable (see http:// for the meeting report) that they established the plan for these joint centers. They hope to use this earlier research to support the COHH program and create a more complete base of knowledge of the still largely unstudied realm where human health and marine life intermingle.

For more information on the COHH program, contact Allen Dearry at the NIEHS ( or Don Rice at the National Science Foundation (
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Author:Dooley, Erin E.
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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