May 22, 2003 

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Drugs from the Deep (video)
April 29, 2003

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Interviewee: William Fenical, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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Produced by Donna Vaughan

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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How Severe is Antibiotic Resistance?

NOAA Ocean Facts and Tips

Doctors and patients around the world are concerned about increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant germs and new diseases.

But, as this ScienCentral News video reports, ocean scientists have found an unlikely new source of many drugs—deep ocean mud.

Help from the Sea

Antibiotics have worked so well at helping us fight off infectious diseases that they have changed the way diseases are treated. But now, because of overuse, misuse, and a growing number of antibiotic-resistant germs, the “wonder” seems to be wearing off these “wonder drugs.” Making matters worse, new sources of antibiotics, which typically come from tiny organisms that live in terrestrial soil, began to dwindle about ten years ago.

William Fenical, Director of the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has found a potential new source of antibiotics, as well as anti-cancer and anti-fungal medicines—microscopic mud-dwelling organisms from the deep sea.

“We’ve gone out into the ocean and began to sample those deep ocean environments,” explains Fenical, “bringing those deep ocean mud samples into the laboratory, investigating what is present in those samples, and isolating brand new forms of microorganisms that have never been seen before.” Fenical found that many of these microorganisms could make new drugs—like antibiotics, anti-cancer agents and anti-fungal agents—that he and his colleagues are now attempting to develop. He has yet to test the microorganisms for anti-viral agents.

Fenical has already found over 5,000 new microorganisms. Of the hundreds he has tested so far, more than 30 percent show promise as antibiotics and anti-fungals, and over 80 percent have anti-cancer potential. He has already isolated one potential new anti-cancer agent, called Salinosporamide A, from the variety of deep ocean microbes he has found. “These microorganisms exist in very high quantities in deep ocean muds, and they’re exactly the same types of microorganisms that have provided antibiotics for the pharmaceutical industry for the last 60 years.”

Until now, the ocean floor remained unexplored in terms of its potential to yield biomedical advances. “The most important thing we’ve learned is the ocean—and it’s the deep parts of the ocean—contain microorganisms that were never conceived to exist before,” says Fenical. “What we’ve learned is that by creating new approaches, new scientific methods, we can now culture microorganisms that produce new antibiotics, new cancer drugs.”

Fenical believes that the oceans’ mud holds potential weapons to battle many diseases. “Currently, we’re looking for antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs, because these are some of the most pressing needs, but other applications in neuropharmacology—treating Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease, heart diseases, and so on—are also quite possible.”

Considering that 70 percent of the surface of the planet is made up of oceans, the potential for new drugs seems almost limitless. “Certainly, the discovery of antibiotics a very long time ago has created a wonderful extension of life for humankind, and also made the quality of our lives far better. So this is a whole new resource for those types of microorganisms to produce drugs for the pharmaceutical industry and to help extend and preserve the quality of human life.”

Fenical’s work has been published in the October 2002 issue of Applied Environmental Microbiology, and the January 2003 issue of the international edition of the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, and is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, the University of California BioSTAR Project, and the Khaled Bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation.

by Karen Lurie

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