Scientists Search for Fresh Antibiotics in the Ocean

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As more bacteria develop resistance to common antibiotics, scientists are desperate to find new drugs. Few are emerging. So some scientists are looking to the ocean for new medicines. But the economics of developing new antibiotics means that few drug companies are interested in the search.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Antibiotics were once regarded as something like magic - strange chemicals from molds and bacteria that lived in ordinary dirt yet cured deadly infections. Now the magic is fading. Today you face in increasing chance of running into an infectious microbe that resists common antibiotics. And scientists are hard pressed to find new antibiotics to replace the ones that don't work anymore.

People trying to reverse this trend spoke with NPR's Christopher Joyce.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

If you're a scientist looking for the latest bioreactor for growing bacteria or a machine to sniff out biological weapons or maybe just a truckload of Petri dishes, you'd go to a meeting of the Society for Industrial Microbiology, like this one in Baltimore recently.

Microbes are front and center here in all their unpronounceable variety. But conspicuously absent from industry meetings like this one are signs of trade in new antibiotics. That's because there isn't one.

Mr. ARNIE DEMAIN (Drew University): It's the symptom of the time.

JOYCE: Arnie Demain worked in the drug industry for several decades. He says big drug companies used to fight over new antibiotics. Their salesmen would even collect vials of soil when they were on the road, hoping to stumble on a blockbuster drug.

Mr. DEMAIN: The industry in the United States is virtually - is almost gone out of the business. They would rather focus on drugs that people will take every day for the rest of their lives, and performance-enhancing drugs.

JOYCE: Drugs that reduce cholesterol, for example, or raise your libido. In the meantime, infectious microbes like staphylococcus are learning to fight off the tried and true antibiotics with deadly consequences.

Demain, who now teaches at Drew University in New Jersey, went to the meeting in Baltimore to drum up enthusiasm for a search for new antibiotics. And, in fact, there are a few scientists, especially at universities and small biotech companies, who have joined the search.

Some are looking in unusual places, places where there are lots of undiscovered forms of life like the bottom of the ocean.

Mr. WILLIAM FENICAL (Scripps Institution of Oceanography): I'll take a shot. I'll take a shot at five million discreet organisms in the sea.

JOYCE: That's William Fenical at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California at San Diego.

Mr. FENICAL: This is clearly far greater a resource, by anyone's judgment, than our collectible plants and animals.

JOYCE: Up until now people looking for antibiotics looked in the same place where they first discovered them, in the soil or among the microbes that live in plants. Fenical says the sea floor ahs never been searched. For one thing, it's hard to get to.

Mr. FENICAL: I mean you have 70 percent of the Earth is mud and it's 4,000 meters deep. You know, how can we overlook that for convenience? You know, we go out in boats, we go 60 miles offshore and we take sampling devices and the seas are huge. It's not any fun.

JOYCE: But there's plenty of raw material there. Fenical estimates that in a drop of mud the side of a sugar cube, there are one billion one-celled creatures, any one of which could contain a novel compound. One reason to look in the ocean is that the old source of antibiotics - the dirt - is so hard to work with. The obviously useful microbes have been discovered and most of the rest just won't grow very well in the laboratory.

But microbiologist Jo Handelsman at the University of Wisconsin has a way to get around there. She turns soil, and the microbes in it, into a sort of bouillabaisse, then she extracts just the DNA, the genes from all the bugs in that soil. She then tests the genes rather than the microbes they came from to see if they'll make bacteria-killing chemicals.

Handelsman says this method - scientists call it metagenomics - opens up a huge new world underneath our feet.

Ms. JO HANDELSMAN (Microbiologist, University of Wisconsin): If you imagine that we've only cultured one in 100 or one in 1,000 of the organisms in the soil, and we've reaped incredible benefits from that small proportion in terms of antibiotic discovery, there should be an awful lot less to discover there.

JOYCE: Handelsman has found two promising antibiotics. So far, no one has shown interest in testing their effectiveness as medicines. It's a long and expensive process.

Ms. HANDELSMAN: It's disappointing to discover a new antibiotic and then not see it tested or put through the paces that you would hope it would be to determine whether it has any utility.

JOYCE: That's been William Fenical's experience at Scripps, as well. His team has discovered two new compounds that seem to kill cancer cells, and seven new compounds that kill bacteria. He says the U.S. government is testing the anti-cancer chemicals. It paid Fenical to look for anti-cancer drugs, but no one, so far, has shown interest in the antibiotics.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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