Laboratories are being set up at Aberdeen University to take lifeforms from the bottom of the ocean and transform them into potentially life-saving drugs.
The Marine Biodiscovery Centre is expected to boost the Scottish economy, both by the work it generates and the products it will be able to make for private companies. Jennifer Craw, of Scottish Enterprise Grampian, said it was "excellent news for the life sciences sector in Scotland".
The venture is being spearheaded by Professor Marcel Jaspars, a trained diver and chemist, who has been building links with colleagues around the world, including in Fiji, Australia and the United States.
"The idea is we discover small molecules and other things from nature that can be used in some shape or form – mostly for medicine," he said. "I look to extend the concept to not just drugs but anything which has a use to it. It could be a cosmetic or a washing powder."
His team has already developed a compound from a sea sponge that opens human cells and allows drugs to pass into them, sparking interest from multinational companies.
In biodiscovery, chemists take a sample of a species, extract what is basically the essential oil, and clean it up through different scientific processes, such as chromatography, until it is a pure compound. Samples are then tested by biologists for the various properties they might have – such as anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory or painkilling.
The centre will send out the samples to as many researchers as possible, who can test them in their work.
It has taken delivery of two giant superconductor magnets, which can analyse the molecular structure of marine life. It also has the world's most cutting-edge equipment to measure the weights of compounds to establish whether they can bond together to create drugs.
"The big part is trying to figure out the complicated structure," Prof Jaspars said.
"That's part of our priorities, to determine what we've got. We'll have the chemist, the biologist and the equipment to test in the same place."
The unit will either work with researchers to develop a drug jointly or license it out to a commercial enterprise.
"One of the things about this is to make sure Scottish enterprise benefits," he said. "Companies come to me and say we have found a new antibiotic, and we help them to define the chemical structure which enables them to get further funding."
The team will also look outside the marine remit to plants, for example.
Dr Rainer Ebel, of the Marine Biodiscovery Centre, will be discussing the work today at "Innovate with Aberdeen: The Frontiers of Excellence", an event targeting business people, investors and policymakers at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh.
ECTEINASCIDIA turbinata is a sea squirt, or tunicate, that is found in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. Last year it became the first marine source to yield a cancer drug.
It was developed by a Spanish firm specialising in anti-tumour drugs from marine life. The drug binds to the DNA and stops the cancer cells from multiplying.
AQUAPHARM, based at Oban, is working closely with the centre in the area of anti-infectives. Bacteria and fungi are collected from the ocean and sent to the centre to find the ones with the best chance of having antibiotic properties. New drugs are particularly important because the bugs develop ways of resisting them.
THE Aberdeen team have discovered a polymer in sea sponges from Papua New Guinea which should speed up drug delivery. It would be administered along with, for example, a cancer drug and would make the diseased cells more susceptible to treatment.
MAGICIAN'S CONE SNAIL
FOUND in tropical waters it produces a highly toxic venom which it uses to paralyse passing fish.
The same poison can block pain signals in the human brain and it has been used to create a very powerful painkiller.
It is designed for chronic pain sufferers who cannot tolerate treatments like morphine.