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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 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 collecting 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.

A Network is Built Up
The NTNU and SINTEF researchers have been bioprospecting for 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 couple of years, since the researchers brought in Professor Stein Ove Døskeland and his colleagues at the University of Bergen, a leading group in the leukemia field. The scientists have also had bacterial fractions tested in Russia.

Professor Sergey Zotchev of NTNU and Senior Scientist Håvard Sletta of SINTEF have been collaborating on identifying valuable types of bacteria.
© Thor Nielsen/SINTEF

More than 95% are of No Interest

Many of the bacteria that were brought up from the Trondheim Fjord have antibacterial effects, 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. By no means can all of them be developed into new medicines, but if we are successful with one or two of them, we will be perfectly happy,” says NTNU’s Professor Sergey Zotchev.

The latest focus on a few selected bacteria has led to these remarkable findings. In Bergen and Moscow, the 11 anti-cancer substances have been tested against leukemias and cancers of the stomach, colon and prostate.

“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.”

Bioprospecting is about hunting down unknown and valuable molecules in nature.
© Rune Petter Ness/SINTEF

Much Still to be Done

Meticulous laboratory experiments have enable the scientists to identify the chemical structure of one of the four substances that can be used as antibiotics, and which they now know act against multi-resistant bacteria. This completely new substance produced very good results in the laboratory, but the data provided by the trials performed in the Moscow tests were not good enough for it to be carried on to the stage of patenting. These findings are now due to be published, and the immediate goal now is to identify the structures of the other three compounds and produce enough of them for new trials on animals.

“If it turns out that this substance does not work on animals, the worst that can happen is that there will be a pause in our efforts. However, in many cases, all that is needed to take us further is a chemical modification of the molecule, but that requires a lot of work, and we could be stopped for lack of funding,” says Sergey Zotchev.

“It is important to understand that marine bacteria produce antibiotics in order to deal with their own natural competitors, rather than to act against infections in the human body.”

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