Marine biologist on the edge of transformative discovery

Amro Hamdoun is a fact machine when describing why marine biology research is so important to medicine.

Among his favorite “did-you-knows” are that research on squid neurons revealed how neurons fire, and that researchers discovered how to use fluorescent proteins produced by jellies as markers that can help them determine the function of specific genes. Or there’s the discovery that how individual cells store electrical energy came from what scientists learned by studying crabs.

But there is a stat that trumps all these when Hamdoun makes the argument for why his work as a marine biologist is of importance to human health: Every person on Earth has several hundred industrial compounds within their body. The compounds are pollutants that may or may not be benign. With most, it will take decades to know exactly what price, in terms of our health, we have paid to acquire better living through chemistry.

What Hamdoun studies is how cell membranes block bad stuff from entering while allowing good stuff to pass — and to do it, he uses the sea urchin as his tool. Sea urchins have had their genomes completely sequenced. They are the most advanced marine organisms to have been so analyzed.

They are the ocean equivalent of the fruit fly one learns about in high school, the test subject for understanding all sorts of genetic mutations. They can also be used to study proteins from other marine organisms. In Hamdoun’s lab, proteins taken from tuna might be injected into sea urchin cells to see if and how they accept chemicals, such as the recently banned flame retardant HBCD.

To understand how chemicals move through marine organisms and ultimately into people, he has tracked not only how cells receive nutrients but also how they communicate with their environment, which proteins in a cell’s membrane make the call whether to let a certain chemical enter the cell, whether those proteins have other functions and determined what those functions are. He has identified about 100 of these multipurpose proteins that he likens to Swiss Army knives.

This is exciting research that could transform discovery on several medical and environmental fronts. It could lead to safer drug and chemical manufacture by preventing compounds like HBCD from passing from the tissue of a tuna to the tissue of the person who eats a tuna sandwich. He likens this to making safer environmental compounds by using the same tools to design effective pharmaceuticals.

Hamdoun wants San Diego to be excited about this and wants the support of the San Diego business community. He is hoping the thought leaders of the region can exchange ideas with the same efficiency that the cells in his lab exchange chemical information, that the membranes surrounding San Diego’s tech, civic and financial communities can achieve greater permeability. He wants an environment that will allow a young researcher to work at full speed, rather than hitting administrative speed bumps, perpetually pausing to apply for grants.

Hamdoun’s view is that big research is poised to bounce back, after an economic downturn that attenuated boldness. The UC system is back on stable financial ground after years of drastic cuts. San Diego could be a global locus of transformative research, just as it was in the 1950s, when Scripps entered its golden age of seagoing exploration.

All the ingredients are here as they always have been; they just need to work in concert to go after the biggest problems facing society, just like the cells that function together to make something live.

Robert Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations now online magazine.

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