Spanish biochemist José María Fernández Sousa, 57, is close to an achievement that could crown his career. By early next year, he expects the European Union to grant approval for the sale of an anticancer drug he has been working on for 15 years. Known as ET-743, the medicine is derived from the poisonous secretions of sea squirts, tiny creatures found in the Mediterranean. In clinical trials, the drug has proved a powerful treatment for breast cancers and certain other tumors. If the EU grants final approval, patients could be taking ET-743 by mid-2003. "It's a potential billion-dollar drug," says Fernández Sousa.
He began exploring the oceans for medical cures in 1987, two years after he became president of Zeltia, a family-controlled chemical maker. "I thought there were many substances not being investigated only because they were under the sea," he recalls. Zeltia's profits currently come from selling pesticides and wood-treatment products: It earned $8 million on sales of $58 million last year, yet the market has valued the company at $1.8 billion. If ET-743 is a winner, you can bet Fernández Sousa will redouble his effort to find miracles beneath the waves.