Natural Product Found in Sea Sponges Shows Promise in Preventing Cancer-Induced Muscle Wasting

12 June 2012

Toronto -

Researchers in Montreal have discovered that a chemical found in sea sponges can effectively prevent muscle wasting in mice. Muscle wasting, or “cachexia”, affects nearly half of all cancer patients and leads to many cancer deaths. There are currently no treatments available for this condition.

Cachexia (pronounced ka-kek-sia) is characterized by excess loss of weight, due primarily to muscle loss, as well as fatigue, weakness and loss of appetite, and occurs in people who are not trying to lose weight. It is usually found in patients with advanced cancer, AIDS and other serious illnesses.

While cachexia is not well understood, it is thought that inflammation from tumours can lead to muscle loss. Cancer patients suffering from cachexia experience a lower quality of life and often an earlier death. In fact, approximately 30% of people with cancer die due to muscle wasting. Previous research on the debilitating condition has identified specific molecular triggers that can initiate symptoms. Specifically, inflammatory molecules such as nitric oxide have been implicated. This is the first time researchers have studied the anti-inflammatory effects of the sea sponge ingredient on cachexia.

The study, funded in part by the Canadian Cancer Society, is published today in the journal Nature Communications. Led by Dr Imed Gallouzi at McGill University, the study shows that a chemical known as pateamine A (PatA) extracted from sea sponges can be used at low doses to prevent cachexia in mice. Previous research has demonstrated PatA’s effectiveness in preventing some tumours and inflammation, but Dr Gallouzi’s team is the first to show PatA’s role as an anti-muscle wasting agent. Dr Gallouzi is an associate professor in the department of biochemistry and the Goodman Cancer Centre at McGill.

“While cachexia has been recognized for decades as a severe problem for cancer patients, there are no known drugs that have been successful in combating it. For this work we decided to try a known anti-inflammatory and anti-tumorigenic agent and assess its impact,” explains Dr Gallouzi. “We were very surprised and pleased with the outcome as this shows real promise for patients suffering from muscle wasting.”

The results showed that low doses of PatA not only prevented muscle loss in mice with cancer, but also stopped muscle wasting that had already begun, triggered by a series of proteins involved in the inflammatory response. In addition, when researchers treated the mouse muscle cells with PatA, they were able to block the production of an enzyme called iNOS, which also increases inflammation. The authors demonstrated that the production of iNOS is inhibited during protein production through PatA.

This research is the first to show a potential treatment option for those affected with tumour-induced cachexia. Dr Gallouzi is hopeful that more studies will help push this towards clinical trial so that the sea sponge drug can be made available for those suffering from cachexia.

“The important study brings to the forefront a potential drug for muscle-wasting syndromes that unfortunately affect so many cancer patients,” says Dr Mary Argent-Katwala, Director of Research, Canadian Cancer Society. “The results of this research could make an enormous difference to the lives of patients suffering from cachexia.”


The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.

For more information, please contact:

Christine Harminc

Senior Manager, Communications & Media Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Phone: 416 934-5340