Medicines From the Sea: Cancer Drugs to Everyday Products 

With keynote speaker Barry R. O'Keefe- Chief of the Natural Products Branch, Developmental Therapeutics Program, National Cancer Institute. Keynote lecture and a panel discussion, followed by audience Q&A. 

May 12, 2021, 3:30 - 5:00 PM



Around half of all approved pharmaceutical drugs, including antibiotics and anticancer agents, are based on natural products. These diverse organic molecules are variably produced by living organisms in response to their environments and may be used for defense against predators or infection, competition for space or protection from UV sun damage, for example. Natural products produced by fish, sponges, tunicates, seaweeds and microbes from the sea have up to four times higher rates of successful drug discovery than other naturally derived compounds. Life in the ocean has existed for some 3.7 billion years, three times as long as life on land, and resulted in far greater evolutionary diversity. The National Cancer Institute and academic researchers continue to study marine life, not only to discover new medicinal natural products but also to find and understand the genes and enzymes used to make natural products.

Kerry McPhail- Opening Remarks

Professor, College of Pharmacy 

Structurally complex natural products from diverse biological organisms continue to be a critical source of new chemical entities that serve as lead compounds for drug development and as molecular research probes. A premise that is central to natural products discovery is that biological diversity equates with chemical diversity, and thus phylogenetically unique organisms from unusual ecosystems are rational sources of new natural products with potentially important biological activities. Taking advantage of recent advances in a range of analytical techniques, with an emphasis on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, our laboratory focuses on the discovery and characterization of natural products relevant to cancer in collaboration with Dr. Jane Ishmael (OSU) and chemical signaling in microbial consortia. Currently we are investigating natural products from deep-sea methane seeps off the Oregon coast, tunicates from shallow reefs and living coastal stromatolites in South Africa, as well as cyanobacteria from Panama.

Barry R. O'Keefe- Keynote Speaker

Chief of the Natural Products Branch, Developmental Therapeutics Program, National Cancer Institute

Dr. O’Keefe leads the Natural Products Branch of the Developmental Therapeutics Program at the National Cancer Institute, where he oversees a campaign to test natural product extracts from plants and animals collected around the world for their potential anticancer action. His program also purifies the active ingredients of these complex extracts, from sponges, sea squirts and seaweeds for example, so that they may be evaluated as lead compounds for new cancer medicines. Dr. O'Keefe earned a Bachelor of Science degree in botany from Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in pharmacognosy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1994 he joined the NCI Laboratory of Drug Discovery Research and Development to study novel proteins from natural products extracts. Dr. O'Keefe is currently Director of the Molecular Targets Program and Head of the Protein Chemistry and Molecular Biology Section, as well as Chief of the Natural Products Branch, Developmental Therapeutics Program, Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, NCI.


Taifo Mahmud

Taifo Mahmud’s research interests span bioorganic and natural product chemistry; biosynthesis of microbial secondary metabolites; and the interface of molecular genetics, enzymology, and chemistry to create and develop novel pharmaceutically active compounds. The group employs a multidisciplinary approach that utilizes cutting-edge technologies in molecular genetics, enzymology, and chemistry to access, study, utilize and manipulate genes and enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of bioactive natural products. Currently, a number of research projects are being pursued in his laboratory. Those include biosynthetic studies and engineered production of bioactive natural products, particularly aminocyclitol- and polyketide- derived compounds, and investigation of bioactive natural products from Indonesian rare actinomycetes.



Benjamin Philmus

The Philmus lab is interested in the discovery of bioactive natural products that can be used to treat human diseases as well as the biosynthesis and mechanisms of action of these compounds. We approach the discovery of interesting natural products using bioinformatics, genetic, molecular biology and chemical approaches. We have two major projects currently underway. The first is the prediction of gene clusters from sequenced organisms allows chemical structure prediction of the produced natural product and its mechanism of action. We have an active collaboration with the Center for Genome Resources and Biocomputing (CGRB) on campus to undertake this project. The second project involves the creation of a heterologous expression system for the supply of cyanobacterial natural products. Currently, bioactive cyanobacterial compounds can be obtained by collection and isolation of environmental samples or through chemical synthesis. Establishing a heterologous host would allow bioactive compounds to be obtained in an environmentally friendly way. This project involves an active collaboration with Drs. McPhail and Ishmael for identifying and testing our produced compounds.



Jane Ishmael

Jane Ishmael is a pharmacologist with research interests that are closely aligned with the natural product drug discovery efforts in the College of Pharmacy. She works closely with Dr. Kerry McPhail to screen natural product extracts and samples for unusual biological activity and to solve the mechanism of action of lead compounds from this pipeline. The Ishmael laboratory has a special interest in the study of marine natural products that perturb cell signaling and induce cell death in brain tumor and breast cancer cells. By understanding how cancer cells react to these novel chemical structures from the sea, Dr. Ishmael’s group strives to discover cellular targets that could inspire better medicines for human cancers that remain difficult to treat.



Hayleigh Middleton

Student-Led Q&A Session

3rd-year Biology Pre-Med student, Oregon State University

Hayleigh is involved in the Ocean11 club as the field trip coordinator

Supplemental resources related to our event

Video: Learn more about Medicinal Chemistry of Corals here

Website: Marine Pharmacology---The Global Marine Pharmaceuticals Pipeline 

Research Papers 

The ocean genome and future prospects for conservation and equity 

Unlocking the potential of marine biodiscovery

How a drug goes from the ocean to the clinic