Researchers probe Great Lakes soil
for medical treatments
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
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
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Some scientists say that's because researchers use outdated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."