Pharma research going underground

RESEARCHERS at the University of Kentucky are literally leaving no stone unturned in their quest for effective drug developments for disease treatments, even taking their search to underground coal mines.

Donna Schmidt

The school said this week that a bioprospecting initiative was being run through the University of Kentucky’s Centre for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation, the Centre for Applied Energy Research and the Kentucky Geological Survey.

The group will collect samples from unusual environments throughout Kentucky, with an ultimate program goal of discovering new and unique organisms that can in turn produce natural products.

Researchers are hoping one of their findings could potentially be used to develop new drugs. It will first focus on cancer, infectious disease and inflammation treatments.

“Many of our existing effective drugs are made by microbes,” the groups noted.

“For example, erythromycin – an antibiotic used to treat a range of infections – is a natural product formed by bacteria found in soil [and] the anticancer agent doxorubicin is also another example of a microbial-produced natural product.”

The group of 12, including CPRI director Jon Thorson, are part of a larger effort at the university who are seeking further development of natural product-based drug leads from unique sources, including bacteria, fungi and plants.

“As part of this effort, we are looking for new microbes that can produce novel bioactive molecules,” Thorson said.

“Instead of looking in places where other people have already been, we’re trying to access new frontiers. The collaboration with CAER and KGS allows us to sample unexplored environments in the context of natural products discovery.”

Thorson said he and the lab group would study products taken from underground and surface coal mines, thermal vents from underground coal mine fires, mining reclamation sites and deep-well core drilling operations for carbon sequestration.

An initial teaming looked at emissions and corresponding microbes associated with underground coal fires.

The heat of the fires combines with the varying flora and mineral makeup of each site to create a distinctive environment for sampling, according to CAER principal research scientist for applied petrology in environmental and coal technologies Jim Hower.

“We decided that the coal fire sites were a very good starting point, because they are fairly unique,” he said.

“They’re really a prime target for sampling.”

US Coal subsidiary Licking River Resources and the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands have both facilitated CPRI access to their needed unique collection sites so far.

Thorson’s team has also accessed samples from deep underground, including more than 40 samples of drill cuttings from depths ranging from 30 metres to nearly 1.6 kilometres underground were collected and sent to Thorson’s lab from eastern Kentucky sites.

“Once you drill below about 2000 feet [610m], the salt concentrations in the water found in pores in the rocks are about three to five times that of the ocean,” research geologist and carbon sequestration research team member Rick Bowersox said.

“As might be expected in a subsurface environment, the microbes are very different from those in a typical surface soil environment. These microbes have adapted to an environment of extremes in water chemistry, pressure and temperature.”

Once the samples are compiled, the team will purify and grow each strain of bacteria and examine them for organisms capable of producing novel molecules.

Thorson’s program, in existence for about a year, has already deposited more than 75 compounds into the school’s UK natural products repository. All of those have originated with sites in the state.

He has high hopes that Kentucky’s natural landscape could possibly hold the key to the next big cancer drug.

“Natural products have been and continue to be a driving force in drug discovery … [a]nd the hope is that some of tomorrow’s therapies may come from the coal mines here in the commonwealth,” Thorson said.