The quest for antibiotics

[2012-08-06] The quest for new antibiotics is continuing in the deep oceans off the coast of Svalbard. this is where the university of Tromsø finds the bacteria on which further research is being done at Umeå University.

“Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest problems in the world today. If we fail to act now, there is a risk of going back to the days before antibiotics, when the simplest bacterial infection could have devastating consequences,” according to Fredrik Almqvist, Professor in Organic Chemistry at Umeå University.

New drugs

All over the world, scientists today are therefore looking for substances that could be used to produce new drugs that are hard for resistant bacteria to outwit. For that very reason, strategic partners Tromsø and Umeå Universities are working together on a project entitled “Molecules for the Future”, which is financed by Vinnova, the Knut & Alice Wallenberg Foundation and the Norwegian state.

“Our goal is to find a new substance with antibacterial mechanisms or a known substance that attacks in a whole new way. It would be tremendously exciting if we succeeded,” says Fredrik Almqvist. He opens the fridge in the laboratory and takes out a Petri dish containing bacteria from the Norwegian Sea.

700 metres down

“Some of the microorganisms we have here come from the bottom sediment, 700 metres down off the Svalbard coast,” he says. The organisms live in the ocean under such special conditions that they are hard to recreate in a lab. The researchers are therefore initially concentrating on the bacteria that can actually be grown and propagated – which is apparently no more than one percent of the bacteria collected.

“We’re investigating many different parameters to find the right conditions for cultivation, such as the salt content and temperature, and also to figure out whether or not they need shaking in order to grow,” Fredrik Almqvist explains.

Secondary metabolites

The first challenge for the researchers at Umeå University was to see whether the Norwegian bacteria can produce small molecules known as secondary metabolites. These are not necessary for the bacteria’s day-to-day life, but they can be used as a defense and to build a survival advantage over the longer term, for instance.

“It was a great boost for our team when we successfully proved that bacteria from Norway could produce secondary metabolites that have an antibacterial effect,” explains Fredrik Almqvist, holding the Petri dish up to the light to show how the cultivation plate has turned completely pink by the metabolites’ activity.

1,000 interesting substances

The bacteria of greatest interest belong to a group called actinomycetes, which are known for producing substances with antibiotic properties.
From the small preparation tubes the Tromsø researchers have sent to Umeå, Fredrik Almqvist and his colleagues have taken around 1,000 interesting extracts. The researchers use advanced analysis tools to quickly and efficiently identify the active molecules.

“We have found molecules that are already known, but we have now been able to show that they can inhibit both bacteria and viruses in different testing systems.”

Disarming the bacteria

The Umeå researchers are focusing on substances that disarm the bacteria, rather than killing them. This is considerably harder to study, but all the more interesting.

“There are currently no antibiotics on the market that are based on disarming strategies, but we have absolute faith in this. Disarming does not as easily lead to resistance, so the strategy could be used as an everyday antibiotic,” says Fredrik Almqvist.

Text: Karin Wikman
Foto: ©Norges Fiskerihøgskole, Universitetet i Tromsø/Elin Berge

Laboratories for Chemical Biology Umeå

Antibiotic resistance

The more an antibiotic is used, the higher the risk that bacteria develop a resistance to it. As time goes on, there may therefore be fewer and fewer preparations that have an effect. Resistant bacteria are particularly dangerous to newborn babies, the elderly and people with reduced immune defense.

The first penicillin began being used at the end of the Second World War. Several new medicines were then developed that could kill bacteria in different ways. But in recent decades, few new antibacterial drugs have been developed. Moreover, many that have reached the market primarily consist of variations on existing medicines.

There are several reasons why there are no new antibiotics to which bacteria have not developed resistance. One is that it is hard to find new ways of tackling bacteria, but another is that there is not enough profit compared to other pharmaceutical projects.

Editor: Karin Wikman

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