Scientists looking for new drugs in NZ waters

21:12, Feb 15 2013

European scientists will explore deep trenches off New Zealand in a bid to discover new antibiotics at the bottom of the sea.

The collaborative project PharmaSea, with a budget of €9.5 million (NZ$15 million) is lead by Aberdeen University and will collect and screen samples of mud and sediment from huge, previously untapped, oceanic trenches.

Scientists in the four year long project hope to find unique chemical compounds from marine samples, looking for undiscovered drugs to replace the existing overused antibiotics.

The project says they will begin work at the Atacama Trench in the eastern Pacific Ocean, 161 kilometres off the coast of Chile and Peru and then move to New Zealand. They will also explore trenches in the Southern Ocean, in the north west Pacific and off Norway.

Project leader Marcel Jaspars said there had not been a completely new antibiotic registered since 2003. There was growing resistance to the drugs.

"If nothing's done to combat this problem we're going to be back to a 'pre-antibiotic era' in around 10 or 20 years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal.

"There's a real lack of good antibiotics in development at the moment."

Project co-ordinator Dr Camila Esguerra, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, said they would 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."

Using fishing vessels, researchers 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 that can be extracted to isolate novel drug-like molecules for pharmacological testing.

Jaspars says marine organisms that live more than 6,000 meters below the sea level are considered to be an interesting source of novel bioactive compounds as they survive under extreme conditions.

"Trenches are separated from each other and represent islands of diversity. They are not connected to each other and life has evolved differently in each one", explains Marcel Jaspars.