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It's A Wrap: Red Tide Human Health Study Completes Decade Of Successful Research

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SARASOTA, Florida -- The most cohesive and longest-running scientific study looking at how humans are affected by Florida's red tide officially wrapped up last Thursday, March 24, 2011, at Mote Marine Laboratory during a meeting of the 22 investigators from eight organizations who have been studying the human health effects of Karenia brevis since 2000. This ground-breaking study led to hundreds of new findings and even potential new drug treatments for cystic fibrosis and COPD sufferers.

While many of the researchers involved in the project will continue their studies of red tide and human health, the overall study funded through the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences (NIEHS) is complete, with official results due back to NIEHS in June.

The $15.8 million 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.

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 in Sarasota. In addition to UNCW and Mote, the study included lead investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Florida Department of Health, the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and 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.

The study began in response to questions and complaints from workers, residents, healthcare providers and public healthcare workers about the possible respiratory and health effects of Florida red tide. This natural phenomenon is caused by blooms of the algae K. brevis. Because Florida red tide cannot be reliably predicted, it is important to understand and mitigate for its effects on the environment and human health.

More than 500 Southwest Florida residents volunteered to participate — that included people with chronic lung conditions, as well as people without compromised lung function. It also included Sarasota County employees and even residents who let researchers place air sampling devices in their driveways.

"We thank the citizens of Sarasota and Manatee counties for supporting this research over the years," Kirkpatrick said. "Without the community's participation, our studies would not have been as complete or as enlightening."

Among the results:

  • The discovery that 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.
  • The characterization of these toxins — the identification of everything from their size and their chemical makeup to their complete pharmacology.
  • The development of 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.
  • Scientific proof that people with compromised lung function — like asthmatics — who inhale these toxins suffer more and have longer-term impacts than people who don't suffer from breathing problems — even after just one hour of exposure to the toxins.
  • The discovery of how these toxins affect humans at the molecular level.
  • Research showing that commonly used asthma medications can both prevent and treat the effects of Florida red tide in asthmatics.
  • The discovery that 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.
  • The discovery that these antitoxins target molecular receptors previously unknown to science. This knowledge could pave the way for even more drug therapies for human ailments.
  • 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.
  • Public information campaigns about Florida red tide and other harmful algal blooms including "Breathe Easy During Florida Red Tide," which included beach signage and other resources; a 24/7 Aquatic Toxins hotline (in Spanish and English) through the Florida Poison Information Center and a new Web site through the Florida Department of Health Aquatic Toxins program.
  • A new Beach Conditions Report ( that provides real-time updates on beach conditions and an independent source for information about whether red tide is affecting 33 beaches on Florida's Gulf Coast.
  • More than 80 peer-reviewed scientific publications (view abstracts online at
  • More than 400 presentations made to the public and the scientific community.

"Thanks to the NIEHS's beach-to-bedside model, we were able to bring together researchers from many different disciplines to attack Florida's red tide and unlock its affects on humans," said Baden, the principal investigator. "We learned more during this study than scientists had been able to uncover in the past 150 years because this collaboration was so large, so well funded and included so many different experts."

The NIEHS funding also allowed researchers to broaden their efforts by seeking additional grant money from other places including the Florida Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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