Scots scientists to lead antibiotic polar mission

Aberdeen University scientists will lead the Antartic mission. Picture: Getty
Aberdeen University scientists will lead the Antartic mission. Picture: Getty
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THE hunt for new life-saving antibiotics is set to take a team of researchers, led by scientists at a Scottish university, to some of the deepest stretches of the polar seas and the most inhospitable parts of the planet.

The European expedition, led by experts at Aberdeen University, is planning to probe previously untapped oceanic trenches in the Arctic and Antarctic to collect and screen samples of mud and sediment in the search for a potential breakthrough in the development of new drugs.

The “PharmaSea” project will involve samples being retrieved from the ocean floor up to one and half miles below the surface of the polar seas in some of the most extreme parts of Earth in a bid to uncover new bacteria that can produce novel antibiotics.

A spokesman for the expedition explained: “Antibiotics have saved millions of lives over the years but new drugs need to be constantly created as bacteria build up resistance, making infections difficult if not impossible to treat.

“Most experts agree over reliance and inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics has led to a rapid increase in drug-resistant bugs and now medical experts fear effective antibiotics might soon run out completely, leaving no means to treat seriously ill patients in the future”

Marcel Jaspars, Professor of Chemistry at Aberdeen University and the project leader, said: “If nothing’s done to combat this problem we’re going to be back to a ‘pre-antibiotic-era’ in around ten or 20 years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal.

“There hasn’t been a completely new antibiotic registered since 2003. This is partially because of a lack of interest by drugs companies as antibiotics are not particularly profitable. The average person uses an antibiotic for only for a few weeks and the drug itself only has around a five to ten year lifespan – so the firms don’t see much return on their investment.”

Dr Camila Esguerra, the project co-ordinator and lecturer at the Laboratory for Molecular Biodiscovery at the University of Leuven said: “PharmaSea will not only be exploring new territory at the bottom of the oceans, but also new areas in ‘chemical space.’. With our broad platform of cutting-edge experiments to detect drug-like activity, we’ll be testing many unique chemical compounds from these marine samples that have literally never seen the light of day.

“We’re quite hopeful that we’ll find a number of exciting new drug leads.”

An Aberdeen University spokesman said: “With costs for expensive specialist underwater equipment costing upwards of £25,000 a day the team will employ strategies more commonly used in the salvage industry to carry out the sampling.

“Using fishing vessels the team will drop a sampler on a reel of cables to the trench bed to collect sediment. Scientists will then attempt to grow unique bacteria and fungi from the sediment which can be extracted and refined to discover new antibiotics.

The four year project is being backed by £8million of EU funding. he first field tests will be carried out in the autumn in the Atacama Trench in the Eastern Pacific Ocean about 100 miles off the coast of Chile and Peru. The team will also search the Arctic waters off Norway and the Antarctic.