Sea bed to be mined for antibiotics

Antibiotics search to spotlight sea bed

Scientists will test unique chemical substances from marine samples present in deep sea trenches

Researchers are embarking on an £8m project to find new antibiotics on the bottom of the sea.

A team, led by scientists at Aberdeen University, is attempting to find undiscovered chemicals among life which has evolved in deep sea trenches.

Prof Marcel Jaspars said the team hoped to locate “the subsequent generation” of infection-fighting drugs.

England’s chief medical officer has warned of an “antibiotic apocalypse” with too few new drugs inside the pipeline.

Few samples have ever been collected from ocean trenches – deep, narrow valleys within the sea floor that could plunge all the way down to almost 6.8 miles (11km).

Yet researchers believe there’s great potential for locating antibiotics in these extreme conditions.

Life in these incredibly hostile environments is effectively bring to an end and has evolved differently in each trench.

The international team will use fishing vessels to drop sampling equipment on a reel of cables to the ditch bed to gather sediment.

Scientists will then try and grow unique bacteria and fungi from the sediment which are extracted and refined to find new antibiotics.

Starting within the autumn with the Atacama Trench within the eastern Pacific Ocean – about 100 miles (161km) off the coast of Chile and Peru – the ecu-funded research may also search deep trenches off New Zealand to boot waters off the Antarctic.

Arctic waters off Norway can also be explored.

‘Pre-antibiotic era’

The inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics – and an over-reliance at the drugs – has brought about a rapid increase in resistant bugs and health workers fear effective antibiotics might soon run out completely.

In January, Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, compared the threat to global warming and said going for a routine operation could become deadly because of the risk of untreatable infection.

Project leader Marcel Jaspars, professor of chemistry on the University of Aberdeen, said: “If nothing’s done to combat this problem we are going to be back to a ‘pre-antibiotic era’ in around 10 or two decades, where bugs and infections which are currently very simple to regard can be fatal.”

He said there had not been a “completely new” antibiotic registered since 2003 – “partially by reason of a scarcity of interest by drugs companies as antibiotics are usually not particularly profitable”.

“The common person uses an antibiotic for just a few weeks and the drug itself only has around a five to ten-year year lifespan so the companies don’t see much return on their investment.”

He said he expected scientists to be engaged on samples within the laboratory within 18 months and added that, if new treatments were discovered, they are able to be available within a decade.

Project co-ordinator Dr Camila Esguerra, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, said: “We’ll be testing many unique chemicals from these marine samples which have literally never seen the sunshine of day.

“We’re quite hopeful that we will discover a choice of exciting new drug leads.”