Sunday, February 23, 2014

Oceans, bacteria, and the quest for new drugs

A marine sponge of the genus Theonella. Photo by Nick Hobgood.
We rely on natural products in medicine: the vast majority of pharmaceutical drugs are thus of plant or microbial origin. (The purely synthetic drugs, which have no counterparts in the environment, are the exception rather than the rule.) To name potent examples of natural products, take antibiotics (discovered in fungi and bacteria), the anti-malaria drug artemisinin (isolated from sweet wormwood) or simply aspirin (salicylic acid is present in willow bark). Many people, I think, forget about this, as they oppose a so-called ‘natural’ medicine to a ‘chemical’ medicine (the pills you get from your doctor). 

It is not easy to find new active compounds, however, and much more difficult to test them and turn them into a real medicine. The situation doesn’t look that good, notably because of the high increase of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and the paucity of new drugs available. A natural environment that has long been recognized as a promising source of new chemicals is the largest on Earth—oceans—, and many researchers are mining the sea in search of new organisms and their specific biochemical abilities. For instance, the research project PharmaSea, funded by the European Union, was launched in 2013 with the goal of discovering new microbial organisms that could be the source of useful chemicals for medicine or industry. This team of academics and industry researchers plan to explore the deep bottom of the sea, looking for environments that are poorly known and potentially harbor interesting organisms. Here’s an excerpt from the project website:

Marine organisms that live more than 6,000 meters below the sea level are considered to be an interesting source of novel bioactive compounds as they survive under extreme conditions. "Trenches are separated from each other and represent islands of diversity. They are not connected to each other and life has evolved differently in each one", explains Marcel Jaspars [PharmaSea project leader]. “

PharmaSea is an ambitious project, and it may not be easy at all to get many new products out of it, but the goal has to be praised, as we surely are in need of new biochemicals, particularly new antibiotics.