Dr Kirsten Benkendorff Anticancer Compounds Interview

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff Anticancer Compounds Interview

Marine molluscs are a potential source of new anticancer drugs and other medicines, according to Dr Kirsten Benkendorff of Southern Cross University.

Dr Benkendorff is the winner of the Australian Academy of Science's 2011 Dorothy Hill Award for young female researchers in the Earth sciences, including reef science, ocean drilling, marine science and taxonomy.

As part of their defence against marine pathogens, molluscs produce small bioactive molecules that Dr Benkendorff has found to have potential for development as antiviral, antibacterial and anticancer medicines.

'I have been investigating anticancer extracts from the Australian whelk for potential development as a novel alternative medicine," she said.
'These extracts show selective activity against a wide range of solid tumours and lymphoma cell lines, but have minimal toxicity to normal healthy human cells."

Dr Benkendorff's team has tested the extract in a rodent model for the prevention of colon cancer and found that the extract appears to be effective in preventing tumour formation.

'Further preclinical trials are currently underway to investigate the efficacy and safety of the purified compounds in longer term prevention models as well as a treatment," she said.
'It will be more than six years before a new product could be commercialised from these molluscs, because after passing through preclinical trials, we would have to obtain regulatory approvals to undertake preliminary clinical trials in humans."

Her work is also shining a light on mass marine deaths, which could have implications for the Australian seafood industry.

Environmental stress like increased water temperature impacts the immune system of molluscs like oysters and abalone making them more vulnerable to disease and death.

'This can be used to explain mass mortality events, which are currently a major impediment to the productivity of molluscs in fisheries and aquaculture in Australia," said Dr Benkendorff.

Interview with Dr Kirsten Benkendorff

Question: How does it feel to have won the 2011 Dorothy Hill Award?

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff: It is amazing; it is a huge honour to win any award from the Australian Academy of Science.

Question: Can you talk about your recent findings that resulted in the award?

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff: I believe the award was presented for the accumulation of my research, over the past ten years, which has been looking at mollusks in a range of different specifics including mollusks as environmental indicators and looking at their health in fisheries and agriculture as well as looking at their health properties for humans.

Question: What does this research mean for humans?

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff: From the cancer perspective I have actually found that an Australian mollusk has quite potent anti-cancer properties, that seem to be effective in preventing formations and there is potential for new medicines there. More broadly mollusks are useful as indicators for environmental change; we have found that there are mass mortalities occurring in mollusk populations around the world which seems to be largely driven by ocean climate change.

Question: How has this affected the Australian seafood industry?

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff: In terms of the Australian seafood industry, we have what is called summer mortality in both oyster and abalone populations and this certainly reduces the probability of the industry because they are loosing a lot of their productivity through disease problems. The disease problems seem to be related to bacterial infection as a result of the mollusk defense system being overwhelmed by temperature and all the other things that are going on in the environment.

In addition to this there are actually new diseases that are appearing in Australia waters, in particular the herpes viruses. The herpes viruses are wiping out abalone populations in Victoria and they have also been detected in oyster populations around the coast. Being a new aquatic disease these are really hard to control because you cannot put a barrier up and stop it from spreading and that is a major concern for the mollusk industry, at the moment.

Question: What drew you to science, as a child?

Dr Kirsten Benkendorff: I don't think I ever sat down and made a deliberate decision – as a child I was always fascinated with nature, I grew up in the bush and I used to love collecting ants and finding spiders, termites and other small, interesting insects. During summer holidays my parents would take me down to the beach and I would collect shells along the beach and I suppose that's where my marine passion began. After finishing school I was very much interested in studying Biology further to find out more about nature, evolution and all the wonderful organisms I had been looking at for years. More than anything, science is a passion and a fascination for nature.

Interview by Brooke Hunter