email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Big, Record-Breaking, Green, Disease-Busting, Deep-Sea, Crime-Fighting IDEAS for 2009
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Photograph by Wim Van Egmond
Drug Divers

In the field of pharmaceutical development a disaster is brewing: About half of all new drugs are derived from terrestrial microorganisms, including the first statins (for cholesterol) and more than 80 percent of antibiotics. But the soil is nearly tapped out, so most big pharmaceutical companies have abandoned soil-based R&D programs. As a result, the once massive pipeline for new drugs has turned into a dripping faucet.

Which is where deep-sea bioprospectors come in. These days the best hope for beating infection and illness may rest with a cadre of scientists who dive thousands of feet underwater in search of microbes to fill this looming pharmaceutical gap.

“The ocean is by far the most biologically diverse environment on the planet,” says Bill Fenical, director of marine biotechnology and biomedicine at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “In sediment at the bottom of the ocean, you can find a billion cells in the volume of a sugar cube.”

A couple of decades ago, Fenical was the field’s lone researcher, strapping on his scuba gear, hand-scooping sediment from the shallow ocean bottom, then taking it back to the lab to analyze. Today scientists are working deepwater sites in southern California, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific.

And none too soon. “Only one new antibiotic has been developed in the past five years,” says Fenical, “and within the next decade, maybe half to two-thirds of the infections that humans acquire will be resistant to the drugs we have today.” The results so far: Fenical has entered the human clinical stages with two cancer-fighting drugs, and other bioprospectors are behind 25 more pharmaceuticals being used in trials. None are a lock for FDA approval, but it’s just a matter of time before the first ocean-derived medicine is officially released.

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