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Haifa U Study Sees Similarity Between Sea Anemones and Humans

The sea anemone may be the next breakthrough pathway for drug discoveries to benefit humanity.

Sea anemones and human beings share a remarkably similar component that controls their early nervous-system development, which scientists at the University of Haifa say can help with drug development.

The mechanism, based on a receptor activated by the GABA neurotransmitter, is a central element in mammalian brain development as well as in sea anemone neural development.

“This was very surprising because humans have a complicated nervous system – and a central brain – whereas sea anemones have a simple neuro-system and lack a brain,” said Dr. Mickey Kosloff, whose lab in the Human Biology Department laboratory at the University of Haifa collaborated in the study.

By using the relatively simple nervous systems of sea anemones as a model for drug development, the need for mammals such as rats or monkeys can be lessened. These mammals’ systems are more complicated, making pharmacological nuances more difficult to isolate.

Kosloff, whose lab uses computational research with 3D modeling alongside experiments, studies G proteins that serve as major communication switches within cells.

“We found in this research that the sea anemones’ simple nervous system opens a door for new ways to look for drugs,” he told The Media Line.

About 30% of drugs, including those for asthma, heart disease and neuronal disorders, act on receptors such as GABA-B coupled to G proteins.

“When we introduced drops of the drug Baclofen into seawater with sea anemones, we immediately detected changes that enabled our research to expand [because of] how highly similar their neural mechanisms are to those of humans,” he said.

Sea anemones belong to the Cnidaria phylum, which also includes jellyfish and coral. This phylum is not often associated with human drug development. Humans and sea anemones took different evolutionary paths about 700 million years ago, and the Cnidaria is considered the oldest phylum with a nervous system.

“Their system is a nerve-net system whereas ours is a central nervous system. It is absolutely amazing that even after 700 million years, humans and sea anemones are still so similar on the neurological level,” Prof. Tamar Lotan, the head of the Marine Biology Department at the University of Haifa’s Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences, where her lab ran the experiments, told The Media Line.

The researchers found that the structure of the GABA neurotransmitter and the GABA-B receptor controls the metamorphic process – akin to embryonic development in humans – for the sea animal. This structure plays a central role in human brain development, as well as that of mammals in general.

These structures, when mapped with 3D modeling, show highly similar molecular details. For example, the active site of the GABA-B receptors, the molecular section that determines how GABA activates them – is similar enough that with the same drugs, the same process influences development of nerve cells.

This is “very exciting,” said Lotan, who has been involved in the creation of two biotechnology companies.

Dr. Shani Levy, from the University of Haifa, who worked on the study for her doctorate, said the organism was used because it is well suited to laboratory research. She was examining biological processes controlling sea-anemone development.

“It is fairly easy to create conditions with light and temperature so that the organism does what we need it to do. As we looked further at the workings of the neural networks when larvae developed and metamorphosed into mature sea anemones, we understood what we found,” she told The Media Line.

“If a medical compound works on a sea anemone, then it probably works the same way on people,” she added.

An article describing the research was published this month in Nature Ecology and Evolution. The University of Haifa researchers were joined by Dr. Arnau Sebé-Pedrós from the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology.