Undersea Life Treats TB: Medicine’s Next Big Thing?

Published: May 11, 2018 12:40 PM EDT
Updated: May 11, 2018 5:54 PM EDT

Tuberculosis, or TB, is a serious bacterial infection that attacks the lungs. It affects one-third of the global population and has been making a comeback here in the United States. Now, researchers at two different Florida universities are teaming up to see if a better treatment could be buried deep in the ocean.

The hidden treasure that these researchers are scouring the ocean for is not gold but a new therapy for the dangerous and deadly bacterial infection TB.

Kyle Rohde, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences from the University of Central Florida said, “There’s estimated about nine million new cases every year and it leads to about one and a half million deaths per year.”

Treatment for most strains of TB involves a cocktail of multiple drugs for six to nine months, but there are an increasing number of drug-resistant strains.

“About half the people who get a multi-drug resistant TB infection will die from it. And we don’t really have good drugs for that,” said Amy Wright, PhD, a research professor from Florida Atlantic University.

That’s why researchers are going to unusual depths for new answers.

“There’s a long successful track record of nature already providing the chemicals that we might use as antibiotics and the marine environment in particular is underexplored.” Rohde explained.

Wright collects samples of sea sponges and soft coral. Her team extracts natural chemical products within these organisms and sends those samples to Rohde. So far, Rohde has tested about 45 hundred different marine samples.

“We think that allowed us to find a few that seemed to selectively target those bacteria that we think mimic the hard to kill one during infection,” Rohde said.

The samples that do show promise are sent back to Wright. Her team figures out the structure of the compound.

“Then the next step would be to synthesize it and maybe optimize the structure so it gives an even better activity against TB,” explained Wright.

And further down the line, a new drug.

Both Rohde and Wright say one of the reasons TB is hard to treat is because the treatment regimen is very long. Patients will stop taking the antibiotics once they feel better, but they still have the infection. If they are able to find a more potent antibiotic, then that may lead to a shorter treatment period.

Contributors to this news report include: Milvionne Chery, Field Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Hayley Hudson, Assistant
Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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