I read an article last Saturday in The Times which I found extremely interesting. For years now, since the discovery of penicillin which revolutionized medicine, allowing easy treatment of infections that had routinely killed people, nothing has been discovered to replace it, which its constant use has somehow decreased its effectiveness.
Now a new discovery, found in the deep of the ocean, where the Sun’s rays struggle to penetrate, organisms lurk that could solve the biggest medical crisis facing humanity. Far below the surface bacteria are engaged in warfare with each other – and to do so they make an antibiotic so strong it can destroy the toughest super bugs in our hospitals. ‘But there is a problem,’ Rebecca Goss, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of St Andrews said. ‘It disintegrates in sunlight.’
Now, however, she may have a solution; give the antibiotics as sunscreen made of pollen. Anti-microbial resistance presents an existential threat to health care. Since the discovery of penicillin there has been no classes of antibiotics discovered in decades, though, and while the science has stopped, the bacteria has not. They evolve resistance. Now these ‘superbugs’ are attacking the basis of our medical system.
‘This should not be such a difficulty. We know that in nature, in the soil and seas, there are likely to be thousands of natural compounds, evolved by bacteria themselves that could give humans the upper hand once more. Yet when you take many of these out of their environment, they can’t survive.’
Professor Goss and her colleagues have demonstrated in a paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Chemical Science, that this need not be an impediment, by working with a highly unstable antibiotic called Marinomycin. ‘This antibiotic is produced by a bacterium that grows under water. For its purposes, it’s fine to be unstable in sunlight – it encounters limited sunlight under water. For us to develop it on the surface? No chance!’ Then she thought about pollen, which is essentially DNA wrapped in protection. ‘The problem is really interesting,’ she said. ‘It can be recovered hundreds of years later and the very sensitive genetic instructions packaged within it are intact. Could we harvest that?’
Working with researchers at Queen’s University in Canada and the British company, Sporomex, they stripped the proteins from the outside of pollen so that it did not cause allergies. Then they took the genetic material from the inside so it was just a vessel. Finally they developed a way to put the Marinomycin inside instead. Then they put it under a tanning lamp. Seven hours later the antibiotic that, in seconds in sunlight, was still there. ‘It was a really simple solution to stop it being zapped by sunlight.’ Professor Goss said: ‘The next stage is to try it in animals, then humans.’
They believe that the pollen shell should break down in the body, releasing its cargo. They have no reason to think it unsafe. We ingest a huge amount of pollen. Honey has substantial pollen content. The product has been used for thousands of years and is known to have health benefits.
William Fenical, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, was one of the scientists who discovered Marinomycin. He said that the real value of the study was in a new approach to protecting unstable molecules. ‘This study isn’t about the potential of Marinomycin although no one ever knows – it is about the innovativeness of the approach to encapsulate an unstable antibiotic, no matter what it is.’
What an amazing discovery if it were to succeed. Today’s antibiotics have practically lost their shine from overuse and are no longer effective as they were in the early days of their discovery. Let’s hope this complexity, found in the oceans, can be harnessed for the development of the human race.