What is PharmaSea?

Exploring the hidden potential: Novel bioactive compounds 

12.03.2015 – 
The collaborative project PharmaSea brings European researchers to some of the deepest, coldest and hottest places on the planet. Scientists from all over the world work together to collect and screen samples of mud and sediment from huge previously untapped oceanic trenches. The large-scale, four-year project is backed by more than €9.5 million of EU funding and brings together 24 partners from 13 countries from industry, academia and non-profit organisations. 

Search for novel bioactive compounds

Bacterial pathogens that are unaffected by antibiotics are a horror of modern medicine. An increasing number of microbes are developing resistance to standard drugs, and with this, the previously trusted medical weapons are losing their edge. The World Health Organization has recognised antibiotic resistance as a growing health crisis, calling it "an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society." Since 2003, there hasn’t been a completely new antibiotic registered. Against this backdrop, researchers from the PharmaSea project are hunting for novel antibiotics. This is an urgent task: Every year, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) alone is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 25,000 people worldwide. This problem is now a firmly established issue in the pharmaceutical sector, which after many years of abstinence is now investing renewed effort in antibiotic research. The EU-funded project PharmaSea focuses on the biodiscovery and the development and commercialisation of new substances from marine organismsIts primary goal is to collect samples from the oceans, home to some of the hottest, deepest and coldest places on the planet. These samples will be screened to uncover marine microbes and new bioactive compounds to evaluate their potential as novel drug leads, and antibiotics.

Extreme environments

By choosing deep and cold marine environments, PharmaSea hopes to tap novel diversity not seen before. Therefore, the search for new compounds will take place in extreme environments, such as deep ocean trenches. They will be accessed off New Zealand as well as the Atacama Trench in the Eastern Pacific Ocean about 100 miles off the coast of Chile and Peru. Deep trenches are islands of diversity in which evolution may have progressed differently and the chemistry of microorganisms from deep trenches shows high novelty. Marine organisms that live more than 6,000 meters below sea level are considered to be an interesting source of novel bioactive compounds as they survive under extreme conditions. PharmaSea’s research teams will also search the Arctic waters off Norway and the Antarctic via Italian and South African partners and will look for new microbes in other unique environments such as thermal vents.

Equipment and techniques

Only a handful of samples from deep-sea trenches have ever been collected and studied, so the project is breaking new ground. Access to really deep water is restricted by access to oceanography ships and deep-sea sampling equipment. PharmaSea’s solution for this is to develop inexpensive and robust equipment based on that developed for the salvage industry. Using fishing vessels, researchers drop a sampler on a reel of cables to the trench bed to collect sediment. To find new species with capacity to produce new chemistry, PharmaSea’s researchers will use selective isolation techniques, polyphasic taxonomy and assess biosynthetic potential using genome scanning. To speed up the discovery of chemical novelty chemometrics, datamining and computer aided structure elucidation will be used. Finally, PharmaSea has developed innovative assays and counterscreens to uncover new compounds with novel mechanisms of action.

The partners

The collaborative project builds upon a highly interdisciplinary consortium of 24 partners from 13 countries from industry, academia and non-profit organisations and brings together researchers from the areas of marine genomics, biosynthesis and chemical structure analysis as well as legal experts. Professor Marcel Jaspars, head of the Marine Biodiscovery Centre at the University of Aberdeen, is Project Leader of PharmaSea, which is funded by the European Union under its FP7 programme. World-leading experts from Belgium, UK, Norway, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Austria and Denmark as well as partners from China, South Africa, Chile, Costa Rica and New Zealand work together to hunt for novel antibiotics.

First results

PharmaSea’s researchers are confident that they will find a number of exciting new drug leads. The early results are promising: Several compounds being tested at the University of Tromsø in Norway and at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland are showing initial signs of antibacterial properties. The researchers have worked on over 1,000 bacterial strains from many extreme locations on the globe including Greenland and Antarctica and have tested more than 12,000 extracts in more than 40,000 biological tests. A number of these have been highlighted as active in screens against infection and central nervous system diseases and a number of new compounds based on this have been identified. A good start, with a long way to go, but the hopeful legacy of the PharmaSea project is to eradicate the issue of antibiotic resistance. Who knows where the next penicillin will be found? Perhaps it will be in the icy Norwegian Arctic or in a deep oceanic trench in the Pacific Ocean.

PharmaSea has already gained attention around the globe. The project has been the subject of features by the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera television and New Scientist, to name but a few. PharmaSea’s communication partner BIOCOM AG presented the results at the CommNet Impact Awards in Brussels, Belgium on December 3 2014. PharmaSea was awarded the Communication Award in the category "Engaging Citizens"



Laura Griestop

Executive Committee