How Reefs May Hold the Secret Cure for Cancer

Most of us know someone who has battled cancer. Many of us walk, run, bike and swim at events to support efforts to find a cure. But there’s another, surprising thing you can do to help cure cancer: save a coral reef.

work_2.4.2Reef_thumbAbout Photo: Erich Bartels of Mote Marine Lab places nursery-grown coral fragments at an outplant site offshore of the US.


Stephanie Wear, a marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy, says, “Coral reefs have an incredible diversity of life—from plants, animals and fungi down to the tiniest micro-organism. And this diversity holds so much potential for medical research. In fact, we are 300 to 400 times more likely to find that next big medical breakthrough in our reefs than on land.”

Indeed, many medicines already in use originated in coral reefs. Ara-C, a medicine derived from a compound discovered in a Caribbean reef sponge, has helped save the lives of millions of people with leukemia and lymphoma. Now the medicine is created synthetically in a lab, so we don’t have to harvest more of it from the reef. Yondelis, used in Europe to treat soft-tissue sarcoma, is extracted from sea squirt (Ecteinascidia turbinata). And those aren’t the only examples—compounds found in coral reefs are essential sources of medicines that treat everything from diabetes to heart disease to Alzheimer’s.

The world’s reefs and oceans may hold many more compounds that could help treat and cure many more ailments and diseases, but 75% of our reefs are in serious trouble from overfishing, coastal development and pollution.

If we lose our reefs, we may never even have the chance to discover all the benefits they hold for people.

How We Can Save Reefs Together

The Coral Triangle region stretches across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and harbors the planet’s greatest concentration of coral reefs. But climate change, overfishing, pollution, and unsustainable coastal development are threatening the seas and reefs that many coastal communities—and entire nations—depend upon for their livelihoods.

Through the Coral Triangle Initiative, the Nature Conservancy collaborates with the governments of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, the Philippines, East Timor and Malaysia—as well as local communities—to generate funding for marine conservation and create new marine protected areas.

Through this Coral Triangle initiative, you can work with The Nature Conservancy and help:

  • Create safe havens for endangered sea turtles and other marine species in Indonesia;
  • Monitor coral and identify the factors that help some reefs stay healthy even when sea temperatures rise, so that we can protect more vulnerable reefs now and in the future;
  • Enable people in fishing villages from the Solomon Islands to Papua New Guinea to make a living through sustainable fishing; and
  • Ensure coastal communities have mangroves, barrier reefs, and wetlands in place to help protect them from rising seas and storm surges.