With the research a UCF professor and his team are currently working on, cancer could one day be treated with therapies developed from shark immune cells.

Otto Phanstiel, a professor at the UCF College of Medicine, and his team have received a $25,000 grant and are also in the running to receive an additional $375,000 grant as a part of Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge, according to a press release.

The Innovation Challenge, which launched in February, was designed to spur and help fund innovations that will sustainably grow the marine sciences and technology sector in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties.

Twenty-five teams with members from the nonprofit, private and public sectors completed applications to vie for the finalist grants.

With their project Cancer Therapies from Sharks, which started in April, Phanstiel and his team are one of five finalists in the Innovation Challenge.

The team has to develop and present a prototype, along with a budget and business plan, to present to a board of business leaders in November, according to the release.

Additionally, the team has to create bi-weekly video updates on the progress of its projects. These videos will be available online for the public to view at

Phanstiel has teamed up with Mote Marine Laboratory scientists Dr. Carl Luer and Dr. Cathy Walsh to develop cancer therapies from shark immune cells. Together, they have partnered with Northern Capital Partners and pharmaceutical company Sun BioPharma.

“This project really required a diverse team of biologists, marine scientists, chemists, pharmaceutical experience and financial resources,” Phanstiel said. “Our plan is to create this new anti-cancer technology, hopefully bring it to market and save lives.”

Sharks and their relatives have a low incidence of disease and cancer, and according to Mote’s website, Luer and Walsh have found that certain substances from shark immune systems have cancer-fighting properties that are effective on certain human cells.

“I have been studying shark immunity for about three months and have learned a lot from my Mote colleagues,” Phanstiel said. “My skills are in organic chemistry and molecular separation methods, and this is an exciting challenge to isolate a natural product from a precious mixture guided by a functional bioassay.”

The team is working to isolate bioactive anti-cancer compounds from a shark-derived sample. It will first validate that the sample is still bioactive and the cancer cells it is growing are sensitive to the sample.

“I was most intrigued by the fact that sharks rarely get cancer and do not have bones like we do. They rely on cartilage for their scaffolding,” Phanstiel said. “This is a critical difference. Humans make our own immune cells in our bone marrow, but sharks cannot. They have developed a specialized organ called the epigonal organ which creates immune cells and their immune response.”

Dr. Michael Crosby, president and CEO of Mote, said Luer and Walsh have been working on this research project for decades as it aims to build upon Mote’s groundbreaking research with cancer-fighting substances from shark immune systems.

It also strives to build a long-standing relationship with UCF scientists and other partners who can help advance the project.

“UCF’s Dr. Otto Phanstiel plays a critical role in our partnership team with his outstanding medicinal chemistry expertise,” Crosby said. “Funding for this project would allow for its full potential to come to fruition and enable true breakthroughs in human medicine.”


Amy Truong is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.

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