Could Arctic Waters Hold The Secret to Life-Saving Drugs

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CNN – It is early afternoon on board the “Helmer Hanssen,” and the Arctic sun is already starting to set. Near the back of the ship, two people dressed in orange rain slickers are anxiously waiting. Any minute now, the ship’s lines will pull taut, and a green mesh bag will be back up on deck.

When that time comes, a sigh of relief as crewmembers empty out the full bag onto the deck. Stepping forward are Jeannette Anderson, a cell biologist, and Robert Johansen, a marine biologist. The pile of dirt, sea sponges, and starfish from the ocean floor are what they came all this way for.

Above the Arctic Circle in the Lyngen Fjord of northern Norway, researchers on the “Helmer Hanssen” are searching for the next generation of antibiotics. In these sea organisms, they hope, are new bacteria to become those drugs.

“If no one finds new antibiotics for common infections, what will happen is we will go back to the pre-antibiotic age in which a simple cut could turn into an infection that becomes deadly,” said Marcel Jaspars.

Jaspars is the founder of the PharmaSea project, an EU-funded initiative to bring research groups together around the world in search of new antibiotics. The World Health Organization says antibiotic resistance is a growing health crisis around the world, calling it “an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society.”

It is not cost-effective for pharmaceutical companies to search for new antibiotics. On average, it costs a pharmaceutical company more than $2 billion to bring a new drug to market. In the case of antibiotics, the drug is only taken for a short time, and could eventually develop resistance. That’s why large-scale focus has moved away from antibiotics research in the past 30 years. In the meantime, bacteria have evolved, adapted, and become resistant to many current antibiotics.

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