September 2, 2013
Next Generation Of Medicine Could Come From The Oceans
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Scientists are starting to look to the ocean to find the next generation of medications that could help yield a variety of cures.
The SeaBioTech project launched in 2012 with the hope of finding raw material for the world's biotechnology industry -- specifically new antibiotics and other medical compounds.
“The oceans can be deep or shallow, they can be more or less tidal, and they can include unique environments such as volcanic vents,” said Brian McNeil of Strathclyde University in Scotland. “That means that the life that lives there has huge diversity. We have only very limited knowledge of it, and especially of the microbial life forms that are found in the ocean."
McNeil, who is coordinator of the SeaBioTech project, used marine sponges as an example of how the ocean could offer up medical compounds.
“They are vulnerable to predators and to attack by fungi and bacteria, but they don’t seem to suffer much from their attacks," he said. "This is partly because they have an internal coating, the biofilm, which contains protective microbial species. We think that these microbes make compounds which deter fungi and bacteria.”
The SeaBioTech project hopes to sample organisms from a wide range of marine environments, including everything from the cold Atlantic sea to the volcanically-active region near the Mediterranean island of Santorini.
“Enzymes and microbes that can survive temperatures of over [158˚F], and high levels of toxicity, could be of interest to biotechnology, perhaps for detoxifying land or water,” McNeil said in a statement.
He said the lab will search for interesting gene sequences as well as for antibiotic activity. This research could lead to new additives for cosmetics or wound healing, as well as new vaccines.
Frank Koehn, research fellow for natural products and world-wide medicinal chemistry at the pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer, pointed out that there are already anticancer drugs in use that were discovered in the marine environment.
“While we have appreciated the importance of marine organisms, genetics and biochemistry since the 1970s, we now recognize more clearly that microbes and larger organisms are an untapped source of genetic diversity, and of compounds that can be important to human and animal health," Koehn said.
Camila Esguerra, lecturer at the laboratory for molecular biodiscovery at the University of Leuven in Belgium, said that many species of marine microorganisms, algae and invertebrates have been shown to produce interesting small molecules. She said that SeaBioTech is designed to discover how these molecules might work as pharmaceuticals.