Making Waves in Drug Discovery

Medical treatments for disease are found under the sea.

As a neuroscience major at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, Eduardo Esquenazi, PhD ’10, never dreamed of starting a company. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer at age 28 that his life’s trajectory changed forever.

Esquenazi began to question the treatment process. “Where are these therapies that are saving my life coming from?” This question, along with his love for the ocean, would lead him to stop his neuroscience studies at the School of Medicine, and pursue studies in biology and marine natural products at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And in 2011, he established Sirenas, a biotechnology company that researches the natural diversity of the Earth and its vast oceans, to identify and develop new potential medicines.

The team at Sirenas (left to right): Jake Beverage, CEO and co-founder; Eduardo Esquenazi, PhD ’10, founder, chairman and head of innovation; and Phil Baran, co-founder.

“All living things make interesting chemicals and some, like plants, bacteria and fungi, have led to important medications for many different diseases,” explains Esquenazi. “But the ocean has largely remained unexplored.”

Sirenas explores various marine environments and collects samples of simple organisms, like sea sponges and cyanobacteria, and processes and digitizes the information. If they find a promising chemical in these samples, it is synthesized in their lab.

“When I was doing neuroscience, I built computational models using UCSD’s Super Computer Center to drive things faster,” he says. “I think it’s our use of computers that differentiates us from other approaches in natural drug discovery and marine drug discovery,” he says.

This approach, which led to an anti-malarial discovery originating in salt pond in the Atacama desert, landed them a substantial grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They were even invited to meet privately with Bill Gates.

The company relies on a healthy ocean to do its work, yet Esquenazi has personally witnessed its decline. “We go back to the same location, and year-after-year, we see the conditions worsen,” he says, “More coral reefs are bleaching, more cyanobacteria are growing on them, and there’s not nearly as much biodiversity as there used to be. At this rate, Sirenas’ library is probably the last–and only–record of some these fascinating and promising chemicals.

And yet Esquenazi stresses the need for continued ocean discovery, with minimal impact, to battle human disease. “We need to break out of the traditional academic or business routes to uncover new therapies and treatment options. By breaking the mold, I believe it could lead to a lot of good things.”

To learn more, please visit the Sirenas website.