Sea Slugs
Science and CSU

Sea slugs: A cancer treatment?

Stephanie Thara


Sea Slugs

Two CSU professors are leading innovative sea slug research to help cure one of the world’s most deadly diseases: cancer. Cal State L.A. Biological Sciences Professor Patrick Krug, PhD, and Cal Poly Pomona Biological Sciences Associate Professor Ángel A. Valdés, PhD, are among the handful of scientists studying seas slugs to uncover medical mysteries and develop break-through solutions to complex health issues.

This summer, Krug and Valdés joined forces and took their research and creative activity to the Caribbean. The two professors held a challenging, active-learning workshop that gave  students integrative training in the taxonomy of sea slugs and taught them how to use these marine species in the fight against cancer.

“There aren’t many scientists out there who work with sea slugs so little is known about their biomedical benefits,” said Valdés. “Workshops like this are molding the next generation to help discover more beneficial things to humans.”

Taxonomy and Biology of Sea Slugs workshop Sea slugs provide enormous benefit to humankind in medicine and biomedical research, said Valdés. Throughout the course, students learn about the importance of sea slugs including how they are utilized to study brain activity and how certain species are used to make medication.

“There is the potential to obtain more drugs and solve more health problems, and our students are working together to maximize the potential,” said Valdés.

On July 24, science students from around the globe—including five CSU students—traveled to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for a two-week workshop on taxonomy and systematics, a branch of science that encompasses the description, identification and classification of organisms.

“Since Angel and I specialize in different groups of sea slugs students had the unique opportunity to be taught by two professors with complementary expertise,” said Krug. “They were able to see the bigger picture on how sea slugs plug into science and get an overview and training on a whole group rather than just a subset.”

The course was comprised of lectures, small group discussion, laboratory and field research, giving students the ideal combination of theory and hands-on learning. After hearing lectures on identifying and describing sea slug species, students surveyed a range of habitats on the Caribbean coast of Panama, practicing collection and ecological survey techniques to get an up close and personal look on how sea slugs adapt to and utilize their habitat.

In just two weeks, students were able to collect more than 70 species of tropical sea slugs. After collection, students examined the external and internal anatomy of specimens in a world-class laboratory, and even learned methods for analyzing molecular sequence data. This training would enable students to produce modern species descriptions and rigorous survey data to address conservation needs.

Taxonomy and Biology of Sea Slugs workshop In addition to CSU students, class participants included budding scientists from India, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Mexico. Students all benefited from each other’s backgrounds and learned how systematics and taxonomy were studied in other countries. The CSU Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology—CSU’s systemwide program promotes marine science research and education—provided Krug and Valdés financial support that helped them secure the National Science Foundation funding that made the workshop possible.

“What’s great about the course is that the study just doesn’t end in Panama,” said Krug. “We take the samples collected this summer back to our classrooms on campus and students in the fall and spring get to analyze and learn from them as well.”

Krug and Valdés are just two among the 9,000 CSU faculty members who provide innovations and solutions to challenging California regional and national problems. Thousands of faculty-led projects, such as the Taxonomy and Biology of Sea Slugs workshop, garner more than $500 million in external funding annually. To learn more about the workshop and the tropical sea slugs collected, visit Sea Slugs in Bocas del Toro, Panama.