Oil Platforms, Deep Seas Mined for New Drugs

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 25, 2006
The thousands of oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico may soon become a source for blockbuster drugs, researchers say.

"They are all very, very rich in organisms" that could provide ingredients for powerful pharmaceuticals, said Lawrence Rouse, the director of the Coastal Marine Institute at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

At least 3,500 oil platforms mine the seafloor beneath the northern Gulf of Mexico and are responsible for about a quarter of U.S. energy production, according to the federal Minerals Management Service.

The platforms are essentially artificial reefs, allowing researchers to collect unique organisms without harming natural reefs. (Related: "Artificial Reefs Made With Sunken Subway Cars, Navy Ships" [August 2006].)

Several years ago Rouse and his colleagues looked for undiscovered species by collected algae, bacteria, barnacles, and other creatures from a cross-section of deep and shallow water platforms.

New species may produce chemical compounds for their survival that could also benefit humans, such as painkillers or toxins that kill cancer cells.

The team is unable to discuss the particulars of their findings because some of their patent applications are pending. But Rouse said project biologists have identified "a significant number of unique bacteria."

(Rouse described the project today in a broadcast of the Pulse of the Planet radio program. This news story and Pulse of the Planet are funded in part by the National Science Foundation.)

Decades-Long Process

Amy Wright is director of the Division of Biomedical Marine Research at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida.

She and her colleagues are working on several compounds from deepwater sponges that may have anticancer properties.

But she says it is too early to tell when the compounds will be available to the general public—if ever.

That's because the drug development process—from identification of unique compounds to production of a new pharmaceutical—can take years, sometimes even decades, Wright says.

For example, the active compound in paclitaxel (marketed as Taxol)—a cancer treatment derived from a compound found in the Pacific yew tree—was discovered in 1971. But the drug wasn't brought to market until 1992.

Economics slows the process, she says. Once academic scientists identify promising compounds, they usually partner with pharmaceutical companies to conduct clinical trials and bring drugs to market.

The trials, which are required for drug approval, take years and can cost several hundred million U.S. dollars.

And hundreds of promising compounds can be tested and discarded before one is found to be suitable for developing into a drug.

"Pharmaceutical companies don't do it for fun," Wright said. "They do it to make money, so they have to look at the economics of the situation."

However, the process does work, she says. In December 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a pain reliever marketed by Elan Pharmaceuticals called Prialt, which is derived from the venom of cone snails.

Cone snails, also known as cone shells, live on coral reefs. Ziconotide, the cone snail compound that became the active ingredient in Prialt, was discovered in the 1980s.

And the Spanish marine biopharmaceutical company PharmaMar has six compounds in clinical trials. Yandelis, an anticancer compound derived from a sea squirt, is in the final testing stages for ovarian cancer, the company says.

Untapped Frontiers

According to Wright, the seas may yield hundreds of promising compounds. "There are still places we haven't explored," she said.

For example, coral reefs that lie 2,000 to 2,900 feet (610 to 884 meters) underwater between the southeast U.S. coast and the Bahamas were discovered last December on an expedition funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This May, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution and University of Miami scientists explored the newfound deep-sea reefs for the first time, searching for biomedical compounds.

The team dove to about 30 of the reefs during the expedition and found unique organisms on each of them. Several hundred reefs are thought to exist in the area.

"And the same kinds of areas are being discovered off Alaska, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest," Wright said. "These are places we have not even been to."

Bacterial Biofuels

Juan Lopez-Bautista, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, completed his postdoctoral research at Louisiana State University and participated in the Gulf of Mexico oil-platform project.

His task was to search marine algae for known and potential biomedical compounds. But the technique he used to study the marine algae led to a surprising discovery.

"Some of the marine algae have been moving—evolving in our point of view—towards the land," Lopez-Bautista said.

With funds from the National Science Foundation, he is currently studying algae that grow on the bark and leaves of trees in the Amazon rain forest.

"So some of the algae we find on the bark on trees are direct descendants of the marine algae. That's very interesting and unexpected," he said.

To survive in their new environment—exposed to air—these terrestrial algae have evolved new biochemical strategies, including adaptations that may allow the algae to convert plant material into oil-like substances.

Lopez-Bautista and his colleagues are currently seeking funding to study these algae to see if they may be of benefit for the manufacture of biofuels—fuels made from plant material.

(Related: "The End of Cheap Oil" in National Geographic magazine.)

"This all comes from the original work we did with the benthic [sea bottom] marine algae," he said.

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