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Veterinarian goes on a spongy expedition

A veterinarian doing her residency in MIT's Division of Comparative Medicine took the search for cancer treatments to new depths this summer -- 3,000 feet underwater in the Florida Keys.

Dr. Claudia Harper, a native of Quebec City who graduated from Tufts University Veterinary School, was a guest scientist on the Keys to Cures mission run by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (HBOI) of Ft. Pierce, FL. On that expedition, researchers gathered deep-water sponges. Dr. Harper's job was to keep the sponges alive so the researchers could study bioactive compounds produced by these animals that might eventually be used as potential therapeutic agents against cancer.

"HBOI transformed a 200-foot research vessel, the Edwin Link , into a tissue culture and natural product extraction laboratory," said Dr. Harper. In other expeditions, "the animals would die within 24 hours. But we were able to keep them alive for six days, the duration of the experiment. The long-term goal is to provide scientists with a source of biomedically important sponges which are currently only available in the wild. This will make these animals more accessible to research and also contribute to conservation efforts."

Dr. Harper studied the normal parameters of the sponges' natural environment, then tried to imitate that environment aboard the ship. To mimic their home in the sea, she housed the animals in tanks of cold saline water in a lab kept at 12-13���C and lit only by the dim glow of a red lightbulb.

During the expedition, she was interviewed for a science TV series scheduled to air in November on WPEC-TV, the CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach.

The Florida expedition was led by Dr. Shirley Pomponi of the HBOI, who identified three new species of animals on the trip. For more information and photos of the Keys to Cures mission web site.

Dr. Harper's own research at MIT is in the development of aquatic biomedical research models that might be used for natural product discovery. Other current research includes work on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease in aquatic organisms such as fish and marine mammals.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 1999.

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