Looking to the past for new antibiotics

Taking a page from Jurasic Park, new research being conducted by Aloha Medicinals Inc. focuses on reanimating ancient organisms found in ancient coal deposits to find treatments for diseases of today.

Dr. John Holliday, founder and chief scientist of the company based in Carson City, Nev., explained that the past may hold the key to developing new antibiotics to battle drug-resistant bacteria that are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of patients in U.S. hospitals every year.

Antibiotics like penicilin are developed from compounds excreted by certain kinds of fungi. Holliday said these fungi developed this characteristic via natural evolution to help them compete against their main rival on the food chain, bacteria.

For millions of years, fungi and bacteria have evolved together in nature. But Holliday said that changed about 70 years ago with the beginning of widespread use of antibiotics.

“All of a sudden these compounds went from being in the microcosm to being in the mainstream human population,” Holliday said. “The bacteria that normally existed in the human population all of a sudden had an accelerated evolutionary process to develop resistance to the antibiotics.”

Modern pharmacology is struggling to come up with new antibiotics to battle these resistant strains of bacteria. But going back in time may be more promising, Holliday said.

“Since we can’t leap ahead in time and know what sort of antibiotics nature will evolve to compete with these resistant bacteria, we decided to look in the other direction,” Holliday said. “That’s why we are looking into the past, to find out if there are antibiotics that these bacteria don’t have a resistance to.”

Holliday, a renowned expert in medicinal fungi, said they found microscopic objects in coal deposits that resembled fungal spores. They have since been able to reanimate and grow several examples of these ancient fungi that have been in a state of suspended animation for at least 8 million years.

“We have isolated several hundred different species, and we have tried to identify these through DNA sequencing,” he said. “We can see that these are Penicillium strains producing archaic penicillin, but they don’t match the genetics of any Penicillium molds we know today.”

Because today’s bacteria hasn’t been exposed to anything like these ancient strains of fungi, Holliday said there is a good chance they will not have any resistance to antibiotics derived from them.

Holliday said they have found a couple of good candidates that seem ideal for the production of refined antibiotics for human and veterinary use, and others that may be better suited as dietary supplements or antibiotic replacements. They are now testing what bacteria these archaic strains work best against.

Where the research will lead, Holliday doesn’t know. But he does think they are on the right track.

“We have to look outside of the little box we have been working in for all these years,” he said. “We have basically run out of leads unless we look back to the past.”

Aloha Medicinals was recently named the Small Business Exporter of the Year for Nevada by the Small Business Administration, and also received the 2007 Governor’s Industry Appreciation Award, and the 2008 Nevada Excellence in International Business Award.

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