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Economic Development
Feb 17, 2016

UNCW Chemist’s Work Saved Lives, Prevented Economic Disaster

Sponsored Content provided by Daniel G. Baden - Executive Principal, Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONC)

As many recent headlines should remind us, science can save lives, and save livelihoods. Working here in our laboratories in Wilmington is a biochemist who over the course of 30 some years has made the world a safer place, and helped to protect the way of life of thousands of fishermen on several continents.
An important specialty of the MARBIONC Center at UNCW is research into biologically active compounds produced by various micro-organisms found in the sea. In many cases, what “biological active” means is that these naturally produced chemicals are poisonous, sometimes fatally so. Jeffrey Wright, Ph.D., is a member of our faculty who, from his early years as a researcher in Canada until now, has discovered and analyzed three dangerous toxins. These substances had killed people and endangered the economic basis of many coastal communities.
“These are marine toxins that can do you a lot of damage,” Wright explained, “some of which can kill you.” By identifying these hazardous substances, and developing tests to identify them in very small quantities, his work has directly contributed to human health and to the economic health of fisheries in places ranging from Australia and New Zealand to North America and Europe.
This story began in the late 1980s when people in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island were becoming sick, and sometimes dying, after eating mussels from local waters. Just a few weeks later, the toxic seafood had become the number one news story in that part of Canada, where the economy depends heavily on the sea. “People stopped eating fish, not just shellfish,” Wright recalled. That knocked the props out from under not just fishing boat owners and crews, but the whole chain of processors, wholesalers and retailers who relied on the seafood harvest.
The culprit was some scary stuff: domoic acid, a neurotoxin that damages the hippocampus, a vital center in the brain. People who survived exposure to the poison suffered short-term memory loss, similar to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s a horrible toxin,” Wright said.
In an emergency push, Wright’s lab “solved this in 107 hours,” as he put it, by identifying the toxic compound, which was concentrated in filter-feeding shellfish that eat marine algae. By definitively showing that people were getting sick by eating tainted mussels, his work gave other local fisheries a clean bill of health, staving off what could have been an economic catastrophe. As a follow-up, the team developed sophisticated testing techniques to detect very small quantities of the toxin. That meant public health authorities and fisheries biologists could figure out whether toxic algae blooms might be a threat long before they caused any direct harm to people.
As a result of that 1987 outbreak, the Canadian government established a Marine Toxin team, led by Wright, to study what are accurately (if unpleasantly) called “diarrhetic shellfish poisoning” toxins, or DSPs. After an unidentified toxin was found in Irish mussels, the group identified a new DSP toxin, which later turned up in waters all around Europe. Closer to home, a “red alert” about toxins found in scallops in a bay in Nova Scotia “attracted a lot of very bad press,” Wright said, and again threatened to destroy important fisheries in the Canadian Maritime provinces. Tracking down this particular toxin took three fishing seasons. Its potency was demonstrated when it killed laboratory mice within 10 minutes of being injected.
“If something in shellfish kills those mice,” Wright observed, “perhaps you don’t want to be eating the shellfish.” That toxin, and the marine species that creates it, eventually were found all over the world, from the South Pacific to the U.S. East Coast and Europe.
The most recent chapter in this saga came from the West Coast, where the crab fishery in California’s Monterey Bay was closed due to contamination by domoic acid, the same stuff discovered during the fatal mussels episode in 1987. Wildlife veterinarians in California contacted Wright, now on the UNCW faculty, about mysterious deaths of pelicans and cormorants. Those birds, he said, had died after eating anchovies from Monterey Bay. Mice died when exposed to an extract of the dead birds’ stomach contents.
Comparing what was in the stomachs of healthy sea birds with those that had died, and with their food, Wright found domoic acid in the dead pelicans. The anchovies the birds had been eating “were loaded with it.”
Before long, the entire West Coast crab fishery was closed, and people in dozens of coastal communities suddenly had no income. Japan barred imports until U.S. officials could guarantee crabs had no domoic acid in them.
What investigators soon were able to tell the fisheries authorities was that, within a predictable time frame, the shellfish would naturally purge themselves of the toxin and could be returned to the market. “It’s much better to know that a problem is going to get better, and that the solution is simply to wait,” Wright commented, than to have no idea what’s going on or what’s going to happen. Recently, in the context of a similar West Coast outbreak in 2015-16, Wright has supplied standards for measuring these marine toxins to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The point of this story is that science provides useful answers to perplexing and frightening questions and gives guidance to those responsible for public health and food safety, helping to keep both people and economies healthy. In this case, the scientist at the heart of the story is one of ours, and his important work is now supported by the people and taxpayers of North Carolina.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a front-runner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.

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