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Searching for a new wonder drug

The fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria goes on.

Last Modified: 06 Jul 2013 15:39
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London, United Kingdom - Marine biologist Robert Johansen gazes down with interest at the mud-grey toxic sea slug in front of him. It's true that this slimy mass of jelly, which induces blisters if touched with bare hands, has charms that are not immediately obvious to the naked eye.

Scientists hope that it may contain a new life-saving drug in the increasingly urgent race to discover new forms of antibiotics. It's a hunt that has taken a group of academics, researchers and industry experts within the international PharmaSea research team to the icy waters of Norway's fjords.

They are collecting samples from "some of the hottest, deepest and coldest places on the planet" in the hope of finding new forms of medicine. And they believe the rich sea life underneath the waves rocking their research boat might hold the key to a new group of wonder drugs.

The team's scientific lead, Professor Marcel Jaspars, describes his ultimate aim: "To discover a new antibiotic that can go into clinical trials and provide treatment for deadly infections for which there are currently no viable options." It's a search with high stakes - the introduction of commercially produced antibiotics in the 1930s revolutionised medicine, and underpinned many of the treatments we rely on today.

Without antibiotics, an infected scratch could prove fatal, and routine surgery would carry horrific fatality rates from infections that are now cured with a simple dose of medicine. But after some 70 years of use, bacteria have become increasingly resistant to current medications, and new versions are thin on the ground.

If nothing is done to combat the [misuse of antibiotics] problem we're going to be back to a 'pre-antibiotic-era' in around ten or twenty years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal.

Professor Marcel Jaspars

No completely new antibiotic has been registered in a decade, and no new original class of the drug has been discovered in 30 years. The growth of antibiotic-resistant organisms has resulted in the emergence of "superbugs" such as MRSA and C Difficile.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people are diagnosed each year with a multi-drug resistant form of tuberculosis, which is prevalent in many lower-income countries such as India.

Bacterial adaptation

The process of drug resistance is an entirely natural ecological game of cat-and-mouse. With each dose of antibiotics, a handful of bacteria survive and become resistant, and are then able to pass their immunity to future generations.

And it is a problem that has been recognised since the 1940s.

"One of the reasons resistance can emerge quickly in bacteria is that they evolve quickly and this is because they grow quickly," said Laura Piddock, the director of the group Antibiotic Action. "For example, the generation time of the human being is typically 20 to 30 years; for bacteria it is typically 20 to 30 minutes."

However, the process has also been speeded up by human misuse of medications, such as taking unnecessary courses of drugs, and agricultural uses in which they are given to animals to help them put on weight quickly.

Part of the solution lies in being more careful in our use of drugs, with international bodies such as the World Health Organisation urging steps to cut down on needless use.

But it also means that new forms of antibiotics must be found. "If nothing is done to combat this problem we're going to be back to a 'pre-antibiotic-era' in around 10 or 20 years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal," said Jaspars.

This is where the PharaSea crew come in, a team of 24 members drawn from 13 countries and supported with 9.5m euros ($12.4m) in European Union funding. It is focusing on marine life from some of the Earth's most remote spots, including locations in the eastern Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Chile and Peru, and in deep sea trenches near New Zealand and China.

"The chemistry of what is down there is so different from what is found on land that we suspect we will find something new," said Jaspars.

Extreme temperatures

Researchers have also been looking for spots, such as along the Norwegian coast, where sea life is forced to adapt to survive, creating natural defence mechanisms that could be harnessed as medicine.

"Northern environments have a highly shifting environment, and it can be extreme," explained Jaspars. "These northern organisms, and also these Arctic organisms - extremophiles, as we call them - tend to have through evolution adapted special mechanisms that organisms further south don't have. You have large amounts of organisms, high diversity - they must compete for space."

Researchers also know that life in the underwater trenches they are examining is hugely diverse - Jaspars described them as like "inverse islands", with life developing slightly differently in each one.

Of course, this also means that searching for a cure could be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the team is using the latest research methods to narrow the odds.

As well as picking up some samples by hand, a specially created dredger will rake the bottom of the oceans. Back at the labs, researchers can then examine and test the finds. For larger samples such as the unfortunate sea slug, this means being freeze-dried and ground up before being tested for potential antibiotic properties.

However, many tiny plants and organisms have to be cultivated in larger quantities before they can be tested. They will be examined using an innovative robot, which can analyse the chemical make-up of the samples in a fraction of the time it would take a human researcher. It can also quickly weed out samples of sea life that have already been discovered.

Jaspars said that researchers can quickly spot a "talented" organism that merits further research, and could provide a cure. The team hopes that by the end of the four-year project, they may have identified one or two compounds as potential antibiotics that could then be tested on animals.

They are also aiming to use the work to encourage big pharmaceutical companies to pick up the search for a new form of the essential drugs. "The discovery of an antibiotic with a new mechanism of action will show that there are new opportunities for the treatment of resistant bacterial infections," said the professor.

For now, that moment could be years away, as the research boat again heads out to sea to pick up the latest batch of sea life. But its team knows the world is waiting for a new cure.

Follow Sonia Elks on Twitter: @SoniaElks

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Al Jazeera
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