Treating deadly sepsis with Hawaiian sea life

John Hopton for – Your Universe Online

A doctor who lost several family members to sepsis, a complication of infection that is one of the leading causes of death around the world, is fighting back by investigating the usefulness of natural, oceanic materials in combatting the condition.

Dr Felix Ikuomola, a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of Hawaii (UH) Cancer Center, has received funding for research into whether the contents of Hawaii’s oceans can be used to improve treatment of the deadly complication. Currently the only treatment for sepsis is supportive in nature, such as giving fluids and antibiotics.

It is believed that some natural marine products which have evolved to withstand the extreme conditions of the ocean may also hold the key to boosting the integrity and functioning of human cells, the concern at the core of sepsis and many other serious health problems.

“We are very hopeful that these Hawaiian marine natural products will work in sepsis because the marine natural products are able to survive the harsh and salty conditions of the ocean and able to control and regulate their internal conditions,” said Dr Ikuomola.

The materials in question have the ability to regulate their cells so as not to suffer from a hyper-permeability condition which could result in unwanted entities entering them. Dr Ikuomola adds that: “…this property that maintains the cell integrity of the natural products is encouraging.”

The University of Hawaii Cancer Center tells us that more than one million people are diagnosed with sepsis each year in the United States, 28 percent to 50 percent of whom die. It is the tenth leading cause of death among elderly people, and it kills 30 percent of cancer patients.

Dr Ikuomola is working closely with his mentor, UH Cancer Center Assistant Professor Michelle Matter, who has an NIH R01 funding (the “gold standard” of research grants according to UH). “My work in Dr Matter’s lab involves screening small molecules, Fungi and Hawaiian marine natural products for potential inhibitory function in endothelial cell permeability,” Ikuomola explains.

An endothelial cell is a thin layer of structural and functional cells that cover the innermost part of blood and lymphatic vessels, and they are responsible for many essential tissue responses. A breach in the barrier allows cancer to spread, as well as causing sepsis and other life-threatening conditions. Sepsis shock itself deprives the organs of blood, triggering widespread organ failure and eventually death.

Originally from Nigeria, Dr Ikuomola remembers the impact that these kinds of conditions have had on his family.

“While in Africa, I felt frustrated to see my patients – especially the surgical patients with sepsis -without any treatment options. If there had been a pro-endothelial cell barrier enhancing therapeutics, my patient’s lives could have been prolonged,” he explained.

The molecular endothelial permeability mechanism in question has also been implicated in Diabetes Mellitus and Hypertension, the two major leading causes of disease and death in Africans, African-Americans, and Afro-Caribbeans.

“For me, to be involved in vascular biology research is very personal, because when I was seven years old, I lost my beloved father to Hypertension-induced hemorrhagic stroke and cousins to diabetic coma,” Ikuomola concluded. “My patients and family have been the driving force for me to be involved in sepsis research.”


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