Humans have relied on a wide variety of natural compounds from plants, fungi and other organisms for their medicinal properties for many thousands of years. What today are called “natural products” by the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries were once simply considered traditional medicines, folk remedies and potions. And the active ingredients of some of them have still not been identified.
The search for new medicines to treat diseases has long relied on these natural products, so much so that approximately 75 percent of the medicines in use are believed to have originated from molecules isolated from wild species. The most widely used breast cancer drug, for instance, was isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, and the anti-inflammatory agent in aspirin is derived from the bark of the willow tree. Penicillin, codeine, quinine and many other well-known medicines originated in this way as well. Only about 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity has been evaluated for its potential for medicinal use, however, and the challenge has become how to access likely candidate species, especially those in the oceans.
David Rowley has accepted that challenge, a challenge that some have described as a global scavenger hunt. The professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical science at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy is leading the search for bioactive compounds from the marine environment. He has collected samples from water bodies around the world – from Narragansett Bay to the South Pacific – and he collaborates with scientists who travel to even more extreme environments to find compounds to test.
“The marine environment is the biggest source of biodiversity on the planet, and the tiny microorganisms there produce some truly novel chemistry in the course of their pursuits,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by those molecules and the fact that they’ve been produced for a purpose, though that purpose is often unknown.”
Much of Rowley’s research has focused on finding microbes with antibiotic properties. He said that one of the world’s biggest health threats is the growing number of bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics, so he is trying to find new sources of antibiotics developed from marine organisms.“With our current challenge of trying to overcome drug resistance, it would seem that the marine environment is one area we need to explore more fully if we’re going to...
Read the complete story in the Summer 2018 issue of 41North magazine.