Sunday, February 3, 2013

Finding new drugs on the bottom of the ocean

In the search of new drugs to treat diseases, scientists often resort to nature in order to find new compounds with useful biological activity. We have found a lot of medicinal compounds in plants, and used them as the foundation for new drugs by modifications and enhancements through chemistry. As we are constantly looking for novel, interesting compounds, the search sometimes takes us to peculiar places. Such is the case with scientists from the Oregon Health & Science University, who proposed to go look for new drugs on the bottom of the ocean.

The depths of the ocean contain a lot of secrets for us, as it is not a conventient place to visit. For that reason, plants and animals living down there may harbour compounds that we can use as medicine. The Oregon scientists tried to find out whether this is actually the case, by conducting a study on a great variety of molluscs living on the ocean floor. And they already managed to get some interesting results.

One of the species investigated is the shipworm, which is actually not a worm. This particular animal is capable of converting wood into useful nutrients, and does so by employing a bacterium. The shipworm needs this bacterium for the necessary chemical conversion, and it is the microbes that the scientists were interested in. They showed that the bacteria present in shipworm produce a powerful antibiotic, which we can use for new treatments. It is actually quite ironic that a bacterium is producing a compound that can be used to kill its siblings.

Cone snails
Another species investigated by the Oregon researchers is the cone snail. Also part of the family of molluscs and carrying a number of bacterial species, they were also presumed to produce interesting compounds suitable for new drugs. Similar to shipworms, the bacteria that use the cone snails as host produce interesting compounds. Bacterie present in cone snails produce things that affect nerve cells, and are believed to be effective as painkillers.

Shipworms anf cone snails are just two examples of species that may hold interesting compounds that we find usable. Our evolving technology helps us studying animals that live in hard-to-reach conditions, and that means there is likely a whole library of new drugs awaiting our discovery. The bottom of the ocean is therefore an untapped treasure chamber for pharmaceutical companies, if the Oregon researchers are correct.

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