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Great Lakes Article:

Researchers probe Great Lakes soil for medical treatments
Associated Press
Published Gazette Extra May 31, 2005

MILWAUKEE - A biologist from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is scouring the bottom of Lake Michigan, looking not for clams, but for bacteria and fungi that develop anti-bacterial chemicals that could be developed into lifesaving drugs for humans.

Biologist Yi-Qiang Cheng and a graduate student, Melissa Barman, say the Great Lakes soil might contain new drug agents that scientists could develop into antibiotics, cancer drugs and other medicine.

They have identified strains of bacteria and fungi that appear promising, but they add it is too early to say how lucrative the lakes might be.

"People have been looking in every conceivable exotic environment" for biological agents, Cheng said. "I figured that since we were here, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan, we should look there."

Cheng and Barman's proximity to the lake could help with creating a natural environment for microbes, which often fail to produce their unique chemicals in laboratory settings.

The team has tough slogging in the area of new antibiotics. The researchers must prove the agents they identify are new and get pharmaceutical companies interested in developing them.

Only seven new anti-bacterial drugs have been approved since 1998, according to Steven Projan, assistant vice president for protein technologies at global pharmaceutical producer Wyeth Co.

And only four of the 290 drugs that major pharmaceutical companies were developing last year were antibiotics.

Cost is one factor, Projan said, as is concern that researchers have found few novel agents in nearly two decades of intensive screening for new antibiotics.

Some scientists say that's because researchers use outdated ways to look for them.

"Soil microbes offer an extraordinarily rich source of active compounds," said Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "I'm just not convinced we have screened as many environments as we say we have."

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