Extreme medicine: The search for new antibiotics

Aug 18 2014, 11:18 IST
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Antibiotics (AP) Antibiotics (AP)
SummaryNatural products fell out of favour in the pharmaceutical sphere, but now is the time to look again: Mervyn Bibb

Pampering leafcutter ants with fragrant rose petals and fresh oranges may seem an unlikely way to rescue modern medicine, but scientists at a lab in eastern England think it's well worth trying.

As the world cries out for new antibiotics, researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich are also taking a bet on bacteria extracted from the stomachs of giant stick insects and cinnabar caterpillars with a taste for highly toxic plants.

Their work is part of a new way of thinking in the search for superbug-killing drugs - turning back to nature in the hope that places as extreme as insects' insides, the depths of the oceans, or the driest of deserts may throw up chemical novelties and lead to new drugs.

"Natural products fell out of favour in the pharmaceutical sphere, but now is the time to look again," says Mervyn Bibb, a professor of molecular microbiology at JIC who collaborates with many other geneticists and chemists. "We need to think ecologically, which traditionally people haven't been doing."

The quest is urgent. Africa provides a glimpse of what the world looks like when the drugs we rely on to fight disease and prevent infections after operations stop working.

In South Africa, patients with tuberculosis that has developed resistance to all known antibiotics are already simply sent home to die, while West Africa's Ebola outbreak shows what can happen when there are no medicines to fight a deadly infection - in this case due to a virus rather than bacteria.

Scant financial rewards and lack of progress with conventional drug discovery have prompted many Big Pharma companies to abandon the search for new bacteria-fighting medicines. Yet for academic microbiologists these are exciting times in antibiotic research - thanks to a push into extreme environments and advances in genomics.

"It's a good time to be researching antibiotics because there are a lot of new avenues to explore," said Christophe Corre, a Royal Society research fellow in the department of chemistry at the University of Warwick.


Marcel Jaspars, a professor of organic chemistry at Britain's University of Aberdeen, is leading a dive deep into the unknown to search for bacteria that have, quite literally, never before seen the light of day.

With 9.5 million euros ($12.7 million) of European Union funding, Jaspars launched a project called PharmaSea in which he and a team of international researchers will haul samples of mud and sediment from deep

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