KU Leuven scientist Camila Esguerra and the Laboratory for Molecular Biodiscovery (headed by Prof. Dr. Peter de Witte) are coordinating a €9.5 million, EU-funded project to collect and study marine microbes extracted from some of the ocean's deepest, most extreme - and as-yet-unexplored - biomes. In addition to coordinating the project, Esguerra and her colleagues will screen 18,000 crude extracts and pure compounds for novel molecules that could lead to new therapeutics against epilepsy and other central nervous system disorders.
The large-scale, four-year 'PharmaSea' project, which began in October 2012, brings together 24 partners from 13 countries and involves the collection of mud and sediment samples from extreme oceanic trenches, the creation of small-molecule extract libraries from marine bacteria isolated from these samples, and biological screening of these extracts to identify chemical compounds with drug-like properties. These molecules will be developed further as drug leads in three indication areas - inflammation, infectious diseases, and CNS disorders.
Only a handful of samples from deep-sea trenches have ever been collected and studied, so the project is breaking new ground. One PharmaSea partner, Deeptek, based in Scotland, has developed new instrumentation for sampling from the ocean bottoms - up to nine kilometres deep - using engineering technology based on salvaging operations that can considerably cut down costs. PharmaSea will also search for new microbes in other unique environments such as thermal vents and whale falls in collaboration with partners from New Zealand and Norway. "PharmaSea will not only be exploring new territory at the bottom of the oceans, but also new areas in 'chemical space'," says Esguerra.
KU Leuven's lab will be carrying out bioassays and screening for the project. Senior scientist Alex Crawford explains: "Our lab will help isolate novel neuroactive compounds using zebrafish assays. In a first phase of screening, we will observe what zebrafish larvae do in the presence of the various deep-sea extracts. By flashing a burst of light to trigger a startle response, we are able determine whether a given deep-sea extract is associated with an atypical photo-motor response. If so, that extract is identified as having a neuroactive behavioural footprint and is set aside for further testing."
Determining a sample's behavioural footprint is the first step in isolating a novel molecule or compound for drug development. "Based on preliminary experiments we expect an appreciable number of extracts to show neuroactivity in this zebrafish screen. The next step is to identify the active molecule in the extract - the classic challenge of natural product discovery," says Crawford.