Florida lab wraps up red-tide research project

The longest and most cohesive scientific study looking at how humans are affected by the “red tide” phenomenon in Florida, USA, was officially completed on 24 March 2011.

It concluded at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota with a meeting of 22 investigators from eight organizations who have been studying the human health effects of the algae causing the tide, Karenia brevis, since 2000.

Red tide, which also occurs in the Middle East and other areas, often causes shutdown of desalination and other seawater abstraction plants.

The US$ 15.8 million National Institute of Environmental & Health Sciences (NIEHS) project was based on a “beach-to-bedside” model designed to reveal the effects of naturally occurring chemical toxins by incorporating numerous scientific disciplines — everything from medical professionals and oceanographers to chemists and pharmacologists. Official results of the project are due back to NIEHS in June.

Discoveries it will contain include:

  • K brevis has at least 12 different toxins that can be harmful to humans. The study found that each of the toxins has very subtle differences that can have very big differences in how humans react to them.
  • New air, water and seafood tests for these toxins.
  • Scientific proof that these toxins become airborne, can be inhaled by humans and that they can travel up to a mile inland, away from the beaches and the wind and wave action that propels them into the air.
  • K brevis also has antitoxins — at least three of them. One of these antitoxins is currently being used to develop a new drug (called Brevenal) that will be used to treat cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the effects of Florida red tide exposure and even Ciguatera fish poisoning. The laboratory research has concluded and researchers are seeking a pharmaceutical partner that can help bring the drug to the marketplace. Initial research shows that Brevenal is 1 million times more effective at treating cystic fibrosis than current drugs.
  • Changes in public health messages related to beach going during Florida red tides. Health experts now suggest that people with respiratory problems like COPD and asthma find alternate activities to visiting beaches during red tides. The message is especially important for people with poorly controlled asthma.
  • The study was led by Dr Daniel G Baden, director of the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, with field research led by Dr Barbara Kirkpatrick, based at Mote Marine Laboratory. The study also included lead investigators from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the Florida Department of Health, the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences and Miller School of Medicine, Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute – New Mexico, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the Mount Sinai Medical Center, Miami.