By Maria Villani, The Founder
As a medical student, I had questions about the human body – its functions and its limitations – and I looked toward sponges for the answers. "Why can't the human body repair nerve cells while sponges have an amazing ability to create many types of cells from a “parent cell”? "If humans can find an equivalent, we might be able to synthesize nerve cells and repair broken spines!"
I still remember my absolute bewilderment the first time I dove underwater. This foreign land underwater was much more beautiful than any science fiction I’d ever seen and in that moment, as far as I was concerned, no place on the planet could possibly surpass its magnificence; after all, this wasn’t science fiction, this was my new reality!
There were fish in every possible shape and size: crustaceans, mollusks, worms, starfish, sea urchins, jellyfish, octopi, ascidians, and crabs, as well as sea anemones and sea lilies. With my face just inches from the reef, I could see sea sponges, their texture and form, and I was surprised to discover that nothing grew around them. No fish eggs or larvae were attached to them. They seemed like such easy prey just sitting there displaying their bold, eye-catching beauty but somehow, they possessed a defense shield that none dared cross. "They must emit something that keeps others away", I thought, "something powerful and invisible." And I suddenly wanted to know everything about them. They were like clusters of gently swaying sunken treasures that surely contained the secrets of the universe, and I was determined to find out.
I volunteered to work at a scientific research laboratory on a project with marine sponges. I had collected my own samples of sponges from many dive trips and as part of my employment agreement with the lab, I lobbied for permission to use the equipment after hours for my own research. By day, I was a typical lab assistant responsible for the preparation and cleanup of the experiments conducted by the scientists, but after hours, I was on my own with an entire facility of state-of-the-art equipment at my disposal. When the researchers went home after their workday had ended, mine was just beginning. I’d leave the lab at night after preparing my experiment and then race back to see what had happened by morning. My research would come to blend a lot of logical, scientific knowledge with an ample helping of magical serendipity, otherwise known as happy accidents.
I was using standard scientific kits to test for the presence of constituents that I expected to find in living tissue: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, enzymes, sterols, and minerals. At the same time, I was also conducting a battery of tests to find the biological activity known to me at the time: antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and cyto-toxicity. But when I got the results, I was puzzled. My findings of chemical constituents did not explain the biological activity I was seeing. That’s when I started to suspect that sponges must be producing metabolites that were not yet known and therefore I had no means of testing or measuring them. It was incredibly mind-boggling, the potential of sponges seemed endless and I could have easily gotten distracted, leaping from one discovery to the next, but I knew I simply had to focus on one thing, and that one thing was literally staring at me. As I stood in front of the mirror and examined the acne that riddled my face, it all added up. "I might be able to develop an acne treatment using sponge compounds!"
And that’s why I decided to look elsewhere. Since all sponges produce unique compounds depending upon their environment, I had to eliminate all the unknown variables and find a sponge that was in a more geographically specific area, one that was less diverse and interesting, less teeming with wildlife, and less unpredictable than the ocean. I decided to collect sponges from a shallow deltas of rivers. Fresh water sponges are not nearly as beautiful as those I’d seen in oceans and seas all over the world. In fact, they’re downright dull looking and very few, if any, people study them for their healing potential because they don’t attract much attention or inspire much interest. But by now I wasn’t looking for beauty, I was looking for effectiveness and I thought that if I could find a sponge that existed in shallow water, the likelihood of having a broad range of predators was decreased, which might result in more reliable results.
I started collecting samples of river sponges in geographic areas that were ecologically clean (protected National Reserves) using “folk medicine” knowledge as a lead. When native people use folk medicine, there is usually some learned generational practical knowledge concerning its efficacy and safety. During my research of many varieties of fresh water sponges, I discovered a very unique variant with desirable bioactivity and an excellent safety profile. I collected a sample; and after pre-clinical studies, I decided to progress to my first human trial, "why not just experiment a little on myself?" My post-teenage acne wasn’t quite finished leaving its trail of splotches across my face, and to my utter delight, the product that I developed from the sponge variant and applied to my face had a profound healing effect on my skin. Something that had plagued me for years was miraculously disappearing within days and I was astounded by the results. "Was this just wishful thinking? Could it be that easy? Could both the problem and the solution have appeared right under my nose?"
Not quite. When I ran out of my sample and went back to get another in order to replicate the same results, the very same sponge that was safe and effective on my skin before now didn’t work at all. I was experiencing the same inconsistency I found with the ocean sponges, properties that would change as easily as the current. I had no choice, I was forced to completely halt my research and figure out this massive problem of inconsistency.
My work at the lab gave me access to mounds of research and the hundreds of scientists who were, like me, trying to discover the secrets of marine life. I was convinced that sponges were, in themselves, an abundant underwater laboratory and a tremendous source of new and powerful pharmaceuticals. But no one had yet been able to harness their enormous potential and I was determined to find out why. I began to ask the researchers about their work but I didn’t just want to know about their achievements, I especially wanted to know what kept them from finding real success. I figured that if I could resolve their problems, I was ahead of the curve. I talked with experienced marine ecologists, biologists and chemists, as well as experts from the pharmaceutical industry. While all the experts confirmed that marine sponges are potential sources of antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer compounds, they were all facing two seemingly insurmountable hurdles. The first was what I had already discovered myself, the inability to achieve any kind of control over the chemical consistency of the product. And the second was the issue of supply; they were all harvesting millions of tons of sponges to extract tiny molecules making their quantities insufficient for commercial development. If an effective drug could be made available to the public, it had to be achieved without endangering the marine population by over-harvesting.
I knew I was onto something with those river sponges. Their life cycle was such that in the wintertime, the sponge transforms into dormant spores, and each spring rapidly re-grows into adult sponges. This quality is rare; the majority of sponges grow very slowly. A flood of thoughts suddenly rushed through my mind. "Not only might these sponges provide a sustained harvest but they were also away from the diversity of the ocean and responded only to seasonal changes." My mind began to whir. "These factors might help me achieve chemical consistency."
I quickly began to learn the ecology of the area and diligently studied sponges from different areas of the river, testing the biological activity the sponges produced. I meticulously recorded the temperature of the water, oxygen content, humidity and various other factors for every sample I collected. It was a laborious process that I endured for five long years. I tried not to be discouraged when many marine scientists told me that it is impossible to commercialize a pharmaceutical sponge-derived product counitng on wild harvest, because of insurmountable task of achieving chemical batch-to-batch consistency every year, patentability of natural products, and supply issues.
Scientists are not generally encouraged to believe in the impossible. Fortunately, “impossible” has never been part of my vocabulary.
In 2004, I have negotiated worldwide exclusive supply agreements and developed a management plan, including Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), for sustainable harvest of the sponge in the Natural Reserve protected by UNESCO. Since then, 30 metric tons of processed weight of the sponge supply have been harvested.
I filed international patents for therapeutic compositions and methods for using aquatic sponges to treat skin conditions and diseases, including acne vulgaris, rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, photo-aging and actinic keratosis. A total of 19 patents have been granted and are recognized and protected in 17 countries.