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Bioprospecting at the North Pole: a Journey of Norwegian Scientists in Search of New Drugs

“Helmer Hansen” in the Norwegian waters. Photo by Rudi Caeyers

Once the 60-meter Helmer Hansen boat, named after the famous Norwegian explorer and explorer of the South Pole, was used exclusively for fishing. But thanks to the funding and assistance of the Norwegian Arctic University, Tromsø was converted into a research vessel where 24 scientists, mostly from Norway, went to the North Pole.

In October, when the sun does not shine in the Arctic, only the navigation lights of Helmer Hansen illuminated the road. Researchers slowly studied the ice surface, trying not to smear small mud puddles. Probably, one of them contains microbes that can save mankind from the future, where diseases can not be defeated with the help of antibiotics. The history of travel of Norwegian scientists was told by The Atlantic.

In search of the unknown

The term “bioprospecting” rarely goes beyond the boundaries of the research field, but this is what the European experts at the North Pole are doing. They go to rain forests in the south or to the coldest parts of the planet in search of rare and unexplored microbes. At the end of 2017, Helmer Hansen set off on a bioprospecting mission for the fourteenth time, leaving the port of Longyearbyen, where it is often possible to meet fuel experts, extreme tourists and scientists.

During the first few days the ship passed Spitsbergen – the polar archipelago and the northernmost part of Norway, where the subordinate of Russia is the settlement of Barentsburg . Then the crew of the ship went far ahead and lost sight of the land, soon found itself surrounded by ocean and dense ice. Every day and every kilometer the crew approached the “dark time” – a season when sunlight does not reach the furthest parts of the Arctic Circle. An additional intrigue of the situation was given by the task of Helmer Hansen to reach 82-degree latitude, the furthest northern point where the crew of the ship had ever traveled.

The Russian settlement of Barentsburg. Photo by RIA Novosti

The expedition is designed for 12 days: the team is divided into two detachments, each of which for six hours examines the surface of the conventional land, collects samples of local snow cover, water, algae and any biological waste. Most of the crew had considerable experience working on boats and at sea, but regardless of the skills of each member of the team, they were obliged to go out for exploration in the cold and dark Arctic.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says the head of the expedition Hans Christian Eilertsen, referring to collecting soil samples for rare microbes. The most valuable finding of such expeditions are miniature sea stars. They hide in themselves DNA and enzymes of a million years ago, stored below 4,572 kilometers relative to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. For humanity, the data in these beings can be a salvation from cancer or other ailments, and may be useless.

The main source of drugs

For millennia, people have developed medicine through nature. In ancient Egypt, plants, minerals and other natural products were recommended as a cure for infections and wrinkles. Many of these tips were harmful, but at times they helped: honey, which wounds from antiquity wounds, does have antibiotic properties, and coriander recommended from pain is a weak analgesic.

Almost every home medicine cabinet has at least one medicine based on natural ingredients. Aspirin was originally prepared from the bark and leaves of a white willow. The antitumor drug Taxol was produced from the Pacific yew, and penicillin was detected due to the observation of mold. 60% of the produced medicines are made from natural products and mostly have natural sources on land. Currently, there are only a few drugs of marine origin that have been tested for quality.

So far, scientists have isolated about 30,000 unique organic compounds from marine organisms, but believe that hundreds of thousands more can be found. However, it is much more difficult to reach the sea routes at the North Pole than in Costa Rica. Although specialists need only a few tens of grams for the initial analysis of samples, tests and attempts to synthesize a new drug from the find require much more time and money. There are only a few international laboratories working with deepwater samples and attracting investments for their development.

The Arctic is of interest to investors and pharmacologists because of the climate. Extreme temperatures forced local organisms to create unique chemical elements of protection. In theory, this means that microbes from cold water can be more effectively used in the creation of drugs than from warm regions. But since scientists need completely new equipment to search for organisms, work in this direction has only recently begun.

A medical study from 2015 says that by 2050, global use of antibiotics will lead to an increase in antibiotic-resistant diseases. The lack of immunity from such ailments can lead to epidemics and circumvent the cancer by statistics of deaths. Similar predictions have been expressed by scientists before, which only adds to the forecasts of additional significance.

A long way to medicine

The clock showed only the second half of the day, and the “Helmer Hansen” detachment had just started a survey when the twilight dipped at the North Pole. The team was divided into three people and went in different directions – at least one of the crew members should always carry a weapon in case of a collision with a polar bear. While some are watching the horizon, the rest of the scientists are collecting material. For example, cut pieces of bark and trunks from small logs, which brought the current. Later, the researchers look through the finds and take samples on board.

Perhaps the most difficult work on the research vessel went to three submariners from Greenland, Norway and Italy. For underwater reconnaissance, the team uses special drones, but to take valuable finds, someone will have to dive into the water: on the day each of the submariners makes several swims. In addition, once every few hours the crew descends to the depth of a half-bucket a half-hook, which collects dirt for analysis.

A research team member next to Helmer Hansen. Holiday pictures Northshore

After a morning breakfast and a briefing, 12 of the 24 crew members go back to the cabins and the rest are sent for reconnaissance. By lunchtime, the teams are changing. “Helmer Hansen” is a spacious vessel with six decks with a large kitchen and a rest room where the crew members drink or communicate. Despite the distance from civilization, the TV regularly catches the signal of local channels, broadcasting television shows and serials

As the team members explain, modern technologies do not allow humanity to adequately fight off infections that are resistant to antibiotics. One of the current tricks in the fight against such diseases involves a slight change in the chemical structure of the antibiotic. This is an inexpensive technique, but the use of a drug familiar to her, even with certain changes, can only exacerbate the ailment.

Another method involves finding new microbes and creating medicines from them, with which at least some of the harmful bacteria previously did not interact. Such operations are not costly – the day of Helmer Hansen’s travel costs about 25.5 thousand dollars. Investments come from various sources, including universities, authorities, advertising partners or grants. In this case, the expedition must be equipped regularly, as sometimes frozen samples deteriorate and become unsuitable for experiments.

In the laboratory, every find takes tests: what it consists of, how and with what elements it interacts and has long existed. After that, information about the found objects is checked against the data of the international register. If the details of the connections converge, the search must begin again. If the data converges, but the found sample has new elements, it is studied in more detail. If scientists have found a new connection with a new bioactivity, then this is a small, but still a success.

Since 2007, the Marbio organization, which sponsors the search for new microbes for pharmacological purposes, has collected samples from more than a thousand elements from various regions of Spitsbergen. In addition, experts found about 1200 different types of invertebrates and hundreds of microalgae species, and although the work has not yet led to the creation and sale of drugs, the researchers made several important discoveries. For example, they found molecules that can help in the fight against diabetes and several types of cancer.

So far, the samples are tested on mice. Thanks to experiments it became known that arctic invertebrates possess great potential for anticancer drugs, and fungal infections most often stand antibiotics.

A new drug on the market

Find a previously unknown species of microbes on land or in water, create a new drug from it, successfully complete animal testing, and then in public, report to the commissions and agree on mass production – something like this looks like a short way of making unique new medicines. On average, it takes 10 years and costs authors 2.5 billion dollars, but even this does not guarantee success: of all drugs that pass tests, only 12% fall on the market.

Antibiotics, which overnight can become useless in the face of rapidly developing diseases, are quite risky investments for drug manufacturers. Many of them prefer to invest in research and development of drugs for daily use: a cure for diabetes is more beneficial than an antibiotic that is necessary only in difficult situations.

A week after leaving the port of Longyearbyen, the Helmer Hansen team stopped at Moffen Island. In the 1700s, large walruses hunted here, and in the early 20th century the population of these animals in the region fell to a minimum. Since 1983, the Norwegian authorities are guarding the island, hoping that gradually the walruses will breed again.

Walruses on the shore of Moffen Island. Photo of the Norwegian Polar Institute

The head of the expedition insisted that the entire crew should go ashore, because in the future it is unlikely that they will have the opportunity to visit an island so remote from civilization. All 24 scientists dispersed over a small area in search of useful samples: someone turned stones or carefully scraped the snow, standing on the ice, while others went on. Soon specialists came across old frozen walrus bones covered with algae, and a little later they saw the resting animals.

Each of the expedition members was photographed with walruses, keeping from them at a safe distance. Technically part of the team rested, so I allowed myself to have fun. “To be honest, the whole expedition may be a waste of time, but we can not know this in advance, so we need to continue,” explains the captain of Helmer Hansen Hans Christian Eilertsen.

Head of Marbio organization Jeanette Andersen (Jeanette Andersen), who invested money in the expedition to the North Pole, agrees with the head of the ship. “I think it’s very naive to believe that we will solve all problems by finding a new antibiotic, because even to it they will adapt at once,” explains the Norwegian. “But I believe that we need to look for new means, because we should always have something in the development that we can use as extreme measures”

In other words, the current expeditions in search of new models do not necessarily have to help humanity right now. But if in the future people will be on the threshold of a new epidemic, as some scientists predict, it is better to prepare for this in advance.

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