Deep sea divers

Renaissance of natural products-based drug research gains momentum with international partnerships and a focus on anti-infective agents

May 12, 2015

They can be found all around us. Some are found in sponges in marine environments; others, such as the phytochemicals in plants or the many metabolites in soil fungi, are found in our terrestrial environment. Even the microbiome of the human body is teeming with potentially useful natural products. While natural products form the basis of more than half of the therapeutic drugs on the market today, this research arena is experiencing a modern-day renaissance, thanks to advances in synthetic and analytic chemistry, as well as to the major advances in molecular biology and genomics. Academic institutions are poised at the forefront, utilizing sophisticated new research technologies and forming collaborations with government and industry to bring these life-saving therapies to market.

A roundtable symposium led by leaders from Texas A&M Health Science Center, Peking University and Peking Union Medical College during the George H.W. Bush Sixth China-U.S. Relations Conference aimed to build upon these advances with natural products research by exploring ways to form international partnerships. Discussions also homed in on the opportunities for commercial translation of anti-infective natural products, particularly those developed to stop the spread of infectious disease.

As our globe becomes increasingly interconnected, looking to the earth for treatments that can help stop disease — be it chronic, metabolic or infectious in nature — is more important than ever.

“There’s a worldwide interest in emerging infectious disease and the search for new strategies and therapies,” says roundtable chair Peter Davies, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Center for Translational Cancer Research at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute for Biosciences and Technology (IBT). “Natural products are a very rich resource in which to search for new ways of treating infectious disease.”

The goal of the roundtable, Davies says, is to bring together key experts in the field of natural products and anti-infective agents — scientists, chemists, biologists and representatives from academic institutions as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies — to promote dialogue on collaborative and innovative approaches to research.

In one such partnership that sparked the idea for the focus group, roundtable co-chair Daniel Romo, Ph.D., professor and director of the Natural Products LINCHPIN Laboratory at Texas A&M University, works closely with Dr. Wenhan Lin, an isolation chemist at Peking University. Lin isolates compounds within natural products gathered in marine environments, and Romo’s team halfway around the globe, in College Station, Texas, synthesizes derivatives of them with the goal of exploring the compounds’ potential as anti-infective agents.

At the Texas A&M College of Medicine, under the leadership of one roundtable speaker, Assistant Professor Robert Alaniz, Ph.D., researchers have turned the focus inward, to a different source of natural products: the human gastrointestinal tract. While some essential compounds, such as fiber, vitamins, and amino acids are provided by the foods we eat, Alaniz says there are potentially thousands of unique molecules produced exclusively by the microbes of our gut, which may contain clues on how to regulate the immune system.

The ultimate goal of such projects is to advance novel anti-infective natural products into the hands of those who need them most: patients. It also means staying ahead of the curve as the agents that cause infectious diseases continue to evolve.

Ken Hull, Ph.D., co-director of the Texas A&M Natural Products LINCHPIN Lab, observes that over the past 10 to 15 years, medicine has seen an increase in disease strains that are resistant to existing antibiotic and antibacterial products.

“If you can find new natural products that have not been used historically as antibacterials, you can find new classes of compounds that bypass the problem of cross resistance that so frequently limits the effectiveness of traditional antibiotics,” Hull says.

To realize that goal — the point at which new classes of natural product-based therapies come to market — takes teamwork, says Davies, and not just within respective academic institutions. It’s about building new, non-traditional partnerships between disciplines.

“This brings together scientists from industry and academia, as well as scientists from different countries, all with different perspectives,” says Davies, “to represent the opportunity to promote dialogue and break down silos.”

— Jennifer Fuentes

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