News out of England this past week reads like a script for a remake of James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” yet I fear it didn’t get the attention it deserves.
According to Reuters, researchers are preparing for a dive to the unexplored and unknown depths of the Pacific Ocean, as well as both polar ice caps. Funded by the European Union and led by professor Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen, the international team plans to collect mud sediment samples. The researchers hope that once brought to the surface, the samples will reveal bacteria that have never before seen the light of day.
It is an adventure that could well be viewed as a mission to possibly rescue modern medicine from itself.
“We need to think ecologically, which traditionally people haven’t been doing,” says Mervyn Bibb, a professor of molecular microbiology at John Innes Centre.
He is collaborating with geneticists and chemists in yet another study to find new drugs to fight disease in an old way – through digging deeper into nature.
Nature has served humankind well when it comes to finding cures for what ails us. Historical records of how the powder from willow bark helped relieve pain and fever eventually led to the wonder drug known as aspirin, which was later found to also help prevent blood clots and protect against cancer. As noted in the Reuters report, the pharmaceutical drug Rapamune, used to prevent rejection in organ transplants, came from a microorganism isolated from soil collected on Easter Island, and penicillin, the first antibiotic, came from a fungus. Few advances in the 20th century so utterly changed and improved the quality of life more than the discovery of penicillin.
More than half of medicines used today were inspired by or derived from animals or plants. Yet this has not been an area of particular interest to pharmaceutical companies obsessed with synthetics. Nor has the development of new antibiotics in general been of interest. According to the World Health Organization, no new classes of antibiotics have been developed in the past 25 years.
Such ventures are expensive, prompting many of the largest pharmaceutical companies to abandon the search for new bacteria-fighting medicines in favor of a surer return on investments. The result is that there are few new drugs waiting in the wings to join the battle against infection.
Somehow we need to move pharmaceutical companies to take their proper role in this war effort – and it is a war. Today drug-resistant strains of bacteria and viruses have become far too common, and current efforts to preserve the effectiveness of existing antibiotics to deal with the problem are proving to be losing the fight.
We need to look no further than Africa for a glimpse of what the world looks like when the drugs we rely on to fight disease either are unavailable or stop working. As noted in the Reuters report, beyond the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, in South Africa, patients with tuberculosis that has developed resistance to all known antibiotics are just being sent home to die.
“Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine,” says Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, in a recent report. “Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”
That’s why new ways of thinking in the search for superbug-killing drugs may be just the roundhouse kick in the pants the pharmaceutical industry needs to join the battle. Turning back to nature – be it in the depths of the oceans or inside previously ignored insects – may lead to otherwise-missed discoveries.
To this end, Bibb and his associates are exploring bacteria extracted from the stomachs of giant stick insects and caterpillars known to have an appetite for highly toxic plants. The hope is that they will be able to identify populations of microbes that could lead to new antibiotics to fight disease.
“Natural products fell out of favor in the pharmaceutical sphere, but now is the time to look again,” says Bibb. Such research marks a significant change in approach.
In recent decades, drug developers focused on screening vast libraries of synthetic chemical compounds in the hope of finding ones capable of killing bad bugs. These synthetics are easier to make and control than chemicals from the wild. They also have yielded few effective new drugs. Synthetic chemical compounds don’t have the natural diversity of compounds that have evolved over billions of years as defense mechanisms in the wild.
“We need new scaffolds, new structures, and that is what natural products bring,” says Christophe Corre, a Royal Society research fellow in the department of chemistry at the University of Warwick.
It’s not just about going to extremes in seeking drug leads in the natural world. According to a 1998 estimate by scientists at the University of Georgia, there is no shortage of unexplored targets around us; bacteria range somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 nonillion (as in a 5 followed by 30 zeros).
Early results are showing that these natural studies may be tempting some large drugmakers back to the antibiotic space. But overall industry efforts are expected to remain a drop in a very deep bucket when compared with the billions spent on other disease areas.
“If this were a conventional war, I think we would have realised the need for a concerted effort long before now,” says Alice Roberts of The Observer in a January 2013 article. “We would be cutting up railings to make into tanks and fighter planes. We’d be donating our silk underwear for parachutes. Instead, what we’re doing is sitting back on our (silk-lined) laurels. We’re being incredibly profligate in the way we’re firing off our limited arsenal, and we’re flirting dangerously with the enemy.”
Given the urgency of the quest to combat the spread of disease, what do we have to do, for crying out loud, to get the wheels of war turning as they should be?
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.