Marc Slattery plumbs the ocean depths in search of untold riches more valuable than gold. How about a cure for cancer?
Author Stephan Talty Photography Tim Calver
IN 1998, MARC SLATTERY found himself, like Alice in Wonderland, descending into a hole.
In Slattery’s case, it was a “blue hole,” one of the water-filled caves in the Bahamian banks that extend hundreds of feet into solid rock. Though they sound refreshing and pleasant, once you dive into one, you realize the name isn’t quite accurate: They are actually suff ocatingly narrow black holes, and swimming through one gives you the strong impression that you will never get out again.
Slattery is claustrophobic. And as the blackness closed in, he began to have second thoughts about the entire blue hole experience: I’m not an idiot, he thought. What am I doing here? People will say at least he died doing something he loved, but I don’t want to die doing something I love, not without my wife beside me…
But as he got back farther and farther into the black tangle of caves, the 49-year-old began looking around and realized that, like Alice, he had tumbled into a hidden world. All along the walls of the blue hole were marine species that no one had ever seen before. (Eventually, he would identify seven new species of sponge in that single hole). For a marine ecologist, which is what Slattery is, it was like being Facebook-friended by Angelina Jolie.
But Slattery isn’t an ordinary marine ecologist.
He’s a cure hunter. For the past 20-odd years, he has been scouring the ocean floor for organisms that will be turned into medicines for fighting everything from cancer to AIDS-related illnesses.
Slattery’s work takes him to the loveliest, most dangerous places in the world, all of them under water. “Seventy-five percent of our planet is seawater,” says Slattery. “And ultimately, the cure for just about everything will be found under the ocean.”
Today the scientist is steering a motorboat away from the dock at the Perry Institute, a cutting-edge marine research center on Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas’ Exuma Cays. He’s on a search for the tunicates, a.k.a. sea squirts, among the most advanced of the invertebrates. The tunicate is the next hot drug prospect.
He wears a thick wet suit, has his scuba gear stowed and carries a handheld GPS with a promising location locked in. Slattery talks like an academic—he seriously does go on about fungi—but grew up snorkeling the Jamaican reefs and looks more like a scuba bum than anything else.
Big Pharma is a secretive business. As Slattery pushes the boat into the water, he is circumspect about the tunicate’s medicinal potential, mumbling something about “some parameters that relate to its biomedical side of things that I really can’t talk about right now.”
What he can say is that the tunicate has, over millennia, developed chemicals that help it resist being eaten by fish and/or invaded by microbes, and that what works for the sea squirt may work for us. “If they’re preventing microbes from landing on them,” shouts Slattery above the roar of the boat’s engine, “the same thing might work in the human body— preventing bacteria from landing on a heart valve, for instance.”
The scenery flying by the boat is almost ludicrously beautiful; low-lying islands cut into a turquoise ocean.
Nicolas Cage owns an island about a half-mile away. It’s reportedly on the market for $7 million.
Back at the University of Mississippi, where Slattery is a professor at the pharmacy school, he is the object of badly disguised envy. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you get paid to do this,’” Slattery says, grinning beneath his water-flecked sunglasses.
The waters he’s churning through are old pirate haunts, and you might think that finding the next big malaria drug would be a little like finding Captain Morgan’s famous lost treasure—enough to make Slattery wildly rich. Not exactly.
A drug on your pharmacy shelf represents about a half-billion dollar investment. When Slattery finds a promising compound in the ocean, he licenses it to a pharmaceutical company, which will spend about 20 years ushering it through lab, animal and human trials before bringing it to market. If and when it ever actually sells, the discoverer and the host country where the original compound was found will each receive a share of the profits. But Slattery’s not in it for the money.
Because he’s employed by the University of Mississippi, his share will go to the institution. “They might throw me a bonus,” he says, laughing. “It’s not my retirement fund by any means.”
Slattery checks the GPS and peers down into the water. “We’re here.” Today’s location is called the Horseshoe, a sand flat surrounded by a ring of dark coral. He straps on his single canister and his flippers, checks his hoses and splashes into the 74-degree water in search of tunicates.
Underwater, coral heads wave in the slow current. Schools of blue tang and striped Nassau grouper drift by, while a torpedolike barracuda lazes around 15 feet away, looking interested. Slattery spots his prey stuck to the top of a coral and swims toward it, yellow net in one hand. He’s looking for a nice big specimen that will peel easily off the rock.
This isn’t it. The sea squirt is stuck fast to the coral. Slattery, his eyes looking a little maniacal beneath the red lenses of his mask, begins to peel off one-inch bits and plunk them into his bag. After 10 minutes of finger-bending work, he gives the thumbs-up and points toward the surface.
The professor and his wife, Deb, an expert in sponge diseases, spend six months a year doing dives just like this one. The work has its hazards: On a trip to Hawaii, locals told him about warriors in the time of King Kamehameha the Great who would dip their spears into tide pools, coating the tips with the poison of the palythoa toxica, which excretes a paralyzing agent a thousand times more potent than botulism.
There is also the Michael Crichton scenario: a microbe found at 300 feet attacking researchers once they get it back to the lab. (“One fungus makes me puff up just looking at it,” Slattery admits.) A few weeks ago, two seven-foot reef sharks tore apart a fish a fellow researcher was bringing out of the water, and they almost tore her apart, too. And in Antarctica in 1989, chasing soft-shell corals, the professor was knocked off his guide rope and found himself being pulled away from the hole in the ice by a two-knot current…
“I swam like hell,” he remembers, after climbing back on the boat. “What we do is dangerous, no question.”
The reason the professor chooses such out-of-the-way places for his dives is that they’re fresh. Researchers have scoured the shallow reefs for three decades; they’re picked clean. As is terra firma, for that matter, which Big Pharma has been harvesting for 100 years.
Slattery examines the sea squirt, which looks like a piece of thin, rubbery AstroTurf, shiny green on top and white underneath. “We’ve had really good luck against cancer with these things,” he says, stowing it away.
The “hit rate” for terrestrial plants and animals—the percentage of finds that are medically promising—is .1 percent. Slattery’s number? Ten percent. Many marine organisms, stuck to the ocean floor, can’t run away from their predators, so they have to produce novel defenses to survive. And they’re pulling in chemicals (boron and chloride, for instance) that land-based organisms can’t access. That’s what makes them special.
Since marine-based medicine is so new, there is only one ocean-derived product on the market right now. It’s called Prialt, a painkiller 1,000 times more potent than morphine, with none of the addictiveness. It’s made from the deadly magician’s cone snail found in the South Pacific. Essentially, the venom the snail employs to stun fish is used in humans to stop nerve cells from sending pain signals to the brain.
Slattery and his team have half a dozen compounds making their way through the testing process, and back at Ole Miss, there are 5,000 samples, a vast seed bank for future medicines.
But Slattery does have his worries. Money in government-funded science is tight right now. One marine lab Slattery works with recently lost National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding, and it’s currently trying to find someone else to support its work.
And the coral itself is under threat. “If I grew up seeing them like they are now,” he says, “I’d probably work in an office today.” Meanwhile, global warming is pushing him into diff erent marine habitats in search of new hunting grounds. As he searches for a cure for AIDS-related illnesses, Slattery is watching the oceans sicken.
The professor guns the engine toward another site. His team calls it the Washing Machine, for its turbulent currents. Beyond the sapphire-colored depths ahead is nothing but ocean and then the east coast of Africa. Eventually, that is where Slattery is headed. Deep water.
Author of the new disease thriller The Illustrious Dead, STEPHAN TALTY is always willing to visit the most beautiful spots on the planet—for science.