Spending a week on the Caribbean island of Curaçao hardly sounds like scientific research. But that’s exactly what it was for Dr. Kevin Tidgewell, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry in the Mylan School of Pharmacy, and Dr. Benedict Kolber, assistant professor of biological sciences in the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences.
Tidgewell, the grant/funding coordinator of Duquesne’s Chronic Pain Research Consortium, and Kolber, the group’s research/education coordinator, gathered about 14 liters of cyanobacteria—what looks like seaweed to the untrained eye—in waters off CARMABI, a marine research station run by the Caribbean Research & Management of Biodiversity Foundation.
Tidgewell, who has scuba dived in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, only needed snorkeling gear for this trip, combing waters up to 15 feet deep. The trip was Kolber’s introduction to gathering cyanobacterial samples.
“Usually my lab deals with the highly processed or purified compounds that Dr. Tidgewell develops,” Kolber said. “Being able to see the original source of these compounds in the ocean was a thrilling and informative experience.”
They found what they expected—plus some types of cyanobacteria not previously reported.
“We knew there would be cyanobacteria there,” said Tidgewell, explaining that other researchers have harvested cyanobacteria from Curaçao containing anti-cancer compounds. “It was a new site for us, and the availability of the research station made the permitting process easier. We were looking for cyanobacteria that produce compounds that could help with pain relief, addiction rehabilitation, depression and Parkinson’s disease.”
Compounds in the cyanobacteria may work by signaling through G-Protein Coupled Receptors that play a role in modulating the central nervous system. The trip provided enough samples to supply Tidgewell and Kolber with about a year’s worth of work extracting and isolating the active compounds. This post-trip research and analysis is funded by a joint National Institutes of Health grant to Tidgewell and Kolber from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
While in Curaçao, Tidgewell also worked with the CARMABI station to develop a museum exhibit about cyanobacteria and cytotoxic compounds discovered in Curaçao, illustrating the importance of the ocean to research.