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Medicines from the Sea

For the first time, Norwegian scientists have managed to produce completely new antibiotics from bacteria found in the sea. The eleven species of bacteria that create substances that kill cancerous cells and three other bacteria that produce new antibiotics were discovered by scientists at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and SINTEF. In collaboration with research groups in Moscow and the University of Bergen, they have made breakthroughs in the field of biotechnology.

Never before have Norwegian scientists carried out the entire process from gathering bacteria from the fjords to presenting completely new interesting substances in bottles. Behind their success lies a long and painstaking process of screening, cultivation, isolation and testing.

However, it will still take some time before they can be sure that the process will continue to the phases of commercialisation and medicine production. The NTNU and SINTEF researchers have been bioprospecting for five or six years, searching for interesting substances that are produced by marine bacteria. The wide range of expertise of this research group makes it unique, as it brings together competence in physiology and genetics, and has access to modern screening and fermentation laboratories.

The pace of the process has risen during the past few months, since the recruitment of Professor Stein Ove Døskeland’s group at the University of Bergen, one of the best groups around in this field. The scientists have also had bacterial fractions tested in Russia.

Many of the bacteria that have been brought up from the Trondheim Fjord have antibiotic functions, but most of these are already known, and are therefore of no interest. New compounds that can be patented are most interesting. “Substances with a new chemical structure and, we hope, with a different mechanism of action than we already know of, could be extremely valuable, for example in fighting cancer. This is why we need more candidate structures. Not all of them can be developed into new medicines, but if we are successful with one or two of them, we will be quite happy,” says NTNU professor Sergey Zotchev.

Recent focus on a few selected bacteria has led to these exciting findings. In Bergen and Moscow, the 11 anti-cancer substances have been tested against leukemias and stomach, colon and prostate cancers. “We have found that cancerous cells have been killed, while normal cells survive, and that individual extracts act on different types of cancer cells,” says senior scientist Håvard Sletta of SINTEF. “However, we still have not identified the active substances in the compounds produced by the bacteria”.

Meticulous laboratory experiments have enable the scientists to identify the chemical structure of one of the three substances that can be used as antibiotics, and which they now know act against multiresistant bacteria. Towards the end of March, this substance is due to be tested on animals in Moscow. If the results turn out to be positive, the way will be clear for a patent application.

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