A team of scientists for more than a decade has ventured to the frigid Arctic Ocean in search of compounds that could be key to developing new medicines—particularly those that could help fight the prospect of an "antibiotic winter," Kea Krause writes for The Atlantic.
Why search the Arctic Ocean?
Antibiotic resistance is a growing public health concern. Research suggests that, absent efforts to curb antibiotic overuse, antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections will cause more deaths annually by 2050 than cancer—a scenario some experts have deemed the "antibiotic winter," Krause writes.
According to Krause, nature has been a source of medicine "for thousands of years." For instance, Krause notes that Egyptian scripts from 1550 B.C. recommended natural products such as plants and minerals for conditions ranging from wrinkles to urinary tract infections. And in the 20th century, a species of mold in a London professor's petri dish led to the development of the antibiotic penicillin.
According to Krause, 60% of drugs used today were developed from natural products. Hundreds of those products have land-based origins, while seven FDA-approved drugs came from marine sources, Krause writes. Krause notes that scientists have isolated more than 30,000 unique organic compounds from marine sources—but speculate that there are hundreds of thousands still to be discovered.
An arduous journey
In search of those undiscovered compounds, a team of 24 scientists—mostly from Norway—have taken to the sea aboard a "fishing-boat-turned-research vessel," Krause writes. The team makes research trips aboard the ship at least yearly with the hopes of finding undiscovered organisms that could be used to develop lifesaving medications, Krause reports. The process is called bioprospecting.
Krause profiles the team on a trip in the Arctic—an area where the team is considered a research leader. According to Krause, it's common for Arctic organisms to have developed especially powerful chemical defenses to survive in extreme conditions. As such, products from these organisms could be more potent than those from warmer environments.
Krause writes that the researchers collect samples from the ocean while standing on ice that "wobble[s] dangerously in the waves"—and must remain vigilant for run-ins with polar bears.
Low odds—but high hopes
The ocean missions "required both relentlessness and luck," Krause write, but she adds that the potential to come back short doesn't deter the researchers.
Hans Christen Eilertsen described the odds in bioprospecting as "very much like looking for a needle in a haystack." He said, "To be honest, a full cruise can be a waste—but we don't know that beforehand, so we must continue. ... It's like a lottery ticket you must buy again and again."
But the team has had some wins, Krause writes. Klara Stensvåg, a microbiologist in Norway who's part of the 24-person team, showed Krause a photo of a sea squirt with bioactivity against bacteria that the team had sought for years and retrieved on the latest trip. "Even one is good," she said.
How samples turn into treatments
Once the researchers return from their voyage, they process the samples—screening them for structural information, elemental composition, and biological activity, which the researchers check against an international database, Krause reports. If they find a compound with novel bioactivity, the "work ha[s] only begun," Krause writes, noting that from there, it takes years of "trial and error" to go from discovery to drug.
The researchers have spent more than a full year at sea since 2007 and have collected more than 3,000 pounds of organisms, Krause reports. The research hasn't yet generated a commercially available drug, but has yielded "promising finds," Krause reports. For instance, a molecule isolated from a sponge collected by the team has shown powerful antioxidant activity relevant to cancer and diabetes, according to Krause. The compound is being tested in clinical trials involving mice.
Jeanette Andersen—head of Marbio, the lab that employs most of the researchers—acknowledged that the team's work likely won't solve the problem of antibiotic resistance, but said it could help mitigate the issue. "I think it would be very naïve to think that we will solve everything by finding a new antibiotic, because we know that it will eventually develop resistance for that molecule," she said. "But I think we should find new things, because there should be things in development that could be used as a last resort" (Krause, The Atlantic, 4/17).
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