Halaven, the new breast cancer drug the FDA approved in November, has an origin that’s rare in today’s pharmaceutical industry: It’s natural. Halaven is derived from halichondrin B, a chemical found in a species of black sponge that lives off the coast of Japan, the Wall Street Journal reports. Once that wouldn’t have been so remarkable, but lately large pharmaceutical companies have focused almost entirely on synthetic, targeted drugs.
“Natural-products discovery is a small-company endeavor,” says one pharmaceutical executive. There’s a reason for that, however: Natural cures usually have modest benefits and serious side-effects. Like many natural therapies, Halaven works by inhibiting cell growth, potentially harming non-cancer cells, and extending life by at most 13 months. Black sponges use it not as a cure but, in the words of one researcher, as a “weapon of mass destruction.” But targeted, synthetic therapies have their flaws and blind spots, too, and researchers think there’s much to be gained from researching natural therapies.