Underwater chemistry inspiring future medicine


From this week's Galway City Tribune

From this week's Galway City Tribune

Underwater chemistry inspiring future medicine Underwater chemistry inspiring future medicine

From the creepy crawlies in the back garden to life in rock pools along the shoreline, Sam Afoullouss has always been fascinated by the natural world. He talks to Colm McSherry about his scientific interest in finding more accurate medical innovations to fight the spread of disease in the most remote habitats on the planet — at the bottom of the ocean.

Strolling along Salthill’s Prom, you may breathe in the ocean air and ponder the last wild frontier – a vast, featureless wilderness of waves, where the deeper you go, the darker, more hostile and less familiar.

That might be as far as it goes for most of us – preferring to stay above the waves, in the world of land, air and sunlight.

For others, the sound of waves lapping on the shore, coupled with the visuals, activates fascinations to explore the world of water, depth and pressure — and for a good reason.

It is beneath those waves that underwater chemist and scuba diver Sam Afoullouss studies the creatures, plants and ecosystems that thrive in lush kelp forests and between rocky reefs rising abruptly from silty seabeds.

Sam is at the forefront of a new generation of Jacques Cousteau-inspired scientists, searching the ocean’s largely unexplored biodiversity to find breakthrough medicines.

“Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness against diseases,” says Sam. “To find our medicines of the future, we’re turning to Mother Nature for help.”

Appropriately, that was the subject of his acclaimed TED talk released at the end of last year.

And for Sam (27), who is completing his PhD at the Marine Biodiscovery Laboratory at NUI Galway, evolution is the best problem-solver.

“Every living creature that exists in the ocean is there because it tackled a number of challenges,” says Sam, who believes that our health is inextricably linked to ocean life.

“It’s a crowded place underwater, where warfare reigns as animals vie for space and food.”

Sam explains that since many of these creatures are stationary, they have evolved chemical defences to protect themselves from predators.

Sam’s commitment to integrating scientific knowledge into society for the public good has uncovered that some of these potent weapons may hold the key to new medicines to treat everything from cancer and Alzheimer’s to arthritis, asthma, malaria and even COVID-19.

Growing up in Dublin, Sam’s childhood memories of his Moroccan auntie making remedies from various flowers and leaves sparked a passion for understanding how to find natural treatments for illnesses.

This passion brought him to NUI Galway to study chemistry and biology, where he also discovered scuba diving. Sam remembers those precious few minutes of his first dive like they were yesterday — when he was instantly hooked.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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