How Sea Cucumbers Could Help to Save the World

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What is a Sea Cucumber anyway?

It sounds on first hearing the name, like a type of vegetable found in the Ocean, but there is actually a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the humble Sea Cucumber.

They are actually not vegetables at all, but marine animals that are shaped like an ugly lumpy browny-olive coloured cucumber. They are related to the starfish and sea urchin, and are found in more than 500 varieties, ranging from an inch long to a whopping six feet!


Courtesy Lazy penguin.com
Courtesy Lazy penguin.com

They tend to live on the ocean floor, burrowing into the sea bed or hiding in grasses, feeding on waste organic matter and small creatures. They often release long branch like structures that they use to catch and absorb matter to feed on. They ingest mud and faeces as they make their way across the ocean floor, which simply passes through the lumpy body and makes it’s way out again, with small particles of dead organisms being absorbed along the way. They are like natural vacuum cleaners, and have been found to filter up to 300lbs of sediment each year. The following clip from Animal Planet shows just how this works.

These echinoderms have a bizarre defence mechanism that they use when they are disturbed and threatened. The eject their innards through their waste hole, which consist of long sticky toxic threads to trap and poison potential enemies. This reaction is shown clearly on the following video clip. Once ejected the internal organs require six weeks to grow back.

So they sound a little unpleasant, but clearly have an important role filtering the organic junk matter that ends up on the ocean floor. It is for this reason that they are being considered as a solution to save the world’s oceans from pollution. Scientists from Newcastle University in England are working together with colleagues in Africa to assess the true potential of these humble creatures.

Fish Farm Filters

Numbers of Sea Cucumber found in their natural habitats is at a record low as the organisms are eaten as a delicacy across Asia and widely used in Chinese medicine.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Professor Selina Stead from Newcastle University is therefore investigating solutions such as sustainable farming of Sea Cucumbers in the sea. They could provide a perfect natural remedy to keeping fish farms healthy and clean, reducing the impact that these farms have on the sea.

Sea Cucumbers could change the face of aquaculture, by reversing some of the damage that has been caused by humans over the years. The fact that Sea Cucumbers are close to extinction means that another benefit is that they can recover their numbers.

Better than Chemotherapy?

Even more remarkable is the evidence that is emerging that seems to indicate that sea cucumber extracts can kill cancer cells while stimulating the immune system. Certain compounds extracted from the Sea Cucumber have been found to be more effective than chemotherapy at reducing the size of tumours, without the harmful side effects. The extracts in question are the triterpenoids. They have shown some positive results in laboratory studies in slowing cancer cell growth and stopping new blood vessels (which feed tumours) from forming.

Ethan Evers the author of ‘The Eden Prescription’ writes of research that has demonstrated the Sea Cucumber’s ability to “kill lung, breast, prostate, skin, colon, pancreatic, and liver cancer cells. These extracts have also proven effective in killing leukemia and gioblastoma cells”.

A study titled ‘Frondoside a suppressive effects on lung cancer survival, tumor growth, angiogenesis, invasion, and metastasiscan be found here. Frondoside A, extracted from the Sea Cucumber was demonstrated to kill 95% of ER+ breast cancer cells, 95% of liver cancer cells, 90% of melanoma cells, and 85-88% of three different types of lung cancer.

“But the benefits of this compound don’t just stop at directly inducing programmed cell death (apoptosis). It also inhibits angiogenesis (the ability of tumors to grow new blood vessels to get their food) and stops cancer metastasizing by impeding cell migration and invasion. Even more intriguing is the ability of frondoside A to activate our immune system’s natural killer cells to attack cancer cells. This has been shown for breast cancer in particular but may also apply to all cancers, because it involves the immune system and not cancer cells directly. This may partially explain why frondoside A was so effective at shrinking lung tumors in mice that it rivaled chemo drugs in performance.” ~ Ethan Evers.

The renowned kiwi cricket player Martin Crowe has publicly stated that he uses a natural Sea Cucumber based remedy to treat his condition, Follicular Lymphoma. But at the present time Sea Cucumbers are not used in cancer treatments, this is something that could change following further studies.

Courtesy Australian Museum
Courtesy Australian Museum

Summary

A first look at the Sea Cucumber may cause people to feel repulsed. It appears to be a generally harmless marine creature without a brain. It is fascinating therefore to learn that they play a vital role in keeping the oceans clean and healthy. The possibility that they could be an effective cancer treatment is very exciting. Further research is underway and we could be hearing more about these innocuous echinoderms in the future!

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