A cure for specific cancers or even HIV may be found in compounds taken from Irish marine life.
Scientists in Galway have been carrying out research on marine sponges that have been discovered to produce toxins that can target a range of different cancers and other diseases.
Dr Grace McCormack, zoologist at NUI Galway who is involved in the research, says the ancient sea sponges could hold the key to a breakthrough in a range of diseases and even infections like MRSA.
Researchers from NUI Galway have teamed up with the Marine Institute in the project. They have been screening the sponges, which are the first animals to have evolved in our seas over 600 million years ago, extracting chemicals from them.
These compounds which can be developed into new drugs have been found to be toxic to certain cells, including certain cancer cells and the AIDS virus, while having no effect on healthy cells.
"At the moment we have preliminary data to suggest activity against specific cancers such as breast and prostate," said Dr McCormack, adding that sponges held "huge potential" for a range of ailments.
"This work needs now to be repeated, refined and the compounds that might be responsible for such activity need to be identified and purified. We need to determine if a single compound will have the same effect or if it is a combination of chemicals in the sponge that produces the activity," she said.
One sponge called Discodermia contains a toxin that is now in clinical trials for the treatment of cancer. There are some 500 sponge species in Irish waters, some of which may yield new drugs or other chemicals of use to society, according to Dr McCormack.
"We have these wonderful marine resources on our doorstep which might present the next great cure," she said. Extracts are also being used to develop compounds that act against drug-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.
"It's long, slow work but the potential is enormous," she added.
She called for more funding of the research and urged industry to get involved.
"There is a huge wealth of marine life that we can be studying for these cures. In Ireland we're in a great position to lead the pack with our research but in Europe they have been doing it longer.
"NUI Galway is in a brilliant position and could make a huge contribution in Europe."