* World crying out for new antibiotics as superbugs evolve
* Scientists seek new chemistry in hard-to-reach places
"Back to nature" search aided by genome mining technology
By Kate Kelland and Ben Hirschler NORWICH,
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.
"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. EXTREME LOCATIONS, SMART TECHNIQUES 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 sea trenches in the Pacific Ocean, the Arctic waters around Norway, and then the Antarctic.
Cubicin, an injectable antibiotic sold by U.S.-based Cubist , was first isolated from a microbe found in soil collected on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey.
Yet as Jaspars says: "It's not just about going to extreme locations, it's now also about using smart techniques." Modern gene-sequencing machines mean it is now possible to read microbial DNA quickly and cheaply, opening up a new era of "genome mining", which has reignited interest in seeking drug leads in the natural world. It marks a significant change.
The problem is they just don't have the natural diversity of compounds that have evolved over billions of years as defence mechanisms for wild bacteria and fungi. "We need new scaffolds, new structures and that is what natural products bring," Corre says.
China's BGI, for example, one of the world's biggest genomics centres, is sequencing thousands of different bacteria, and similar work at other labs is adding to a mountain of data for scientists to work through. It also provides insights into how antibiotic resistance occurs, with researchers at Britain's Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute this month reporting a new way to identify such gene changes, potentially paving the way to more targeted treatments.
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