Scientists Are Looking for Medical Cures in Toxic Waste – Periódico Página100 – Noticias de popayán y el Cauca

Scientists Are Looking for Medical Cures in Toxic Waste

Superfund sites are the most polluted places in the United States, but scientists think they could provide the answer to antibiotic resistance.

Superfund sites take many forms: abandoned mines, shuttered manufacturing facilities, former military bases, and, in the case of New York City’s infamous Gowanus Canal, waterways. These places are so contaminated with hazardous waste they pose a serious risk to human health and the Environmental Protection Agency has made cleaning them up a national priority.

Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal has been a basin of industry waste for decades—arsenic from tanneries and runoff from cement and oil lamp factories. It’s still on the receiving end of Brooklyn’s sewage system and since 2014, at least three human corpses have been found in its waters. Scientists, however, think the Gowanus Canal and places like it could harbor new medicines.

Chris Mason, biochemist and chief researcher at Cornell University’s Mason Laboratory, is among them. He says the organisms that thrive among the pollution could hold treatments for any number of maladies, from cancer to AIDS. Faced with the rising threat of antibiotic resistance, Mason’s team is focused on sourcing new antibiotics from the sludge. So far, they believe they are close to isolating four new strains of antibiotics from compounds produced by the microbes living in the Gowanus Canal.

“It’s completely toxic but we knew things are living in there,” says Mason. These ‘things’ are called extremophiles, and they’re incredibly important to the future of medicine.

Extremophile is the name given to the kinds of (usually microscopic) creatures that thrive in Earth’s most hostile environments, places that would be a death sentence for most other life forms—deep sea vents, the Arctic, and Superfund sites.

In experiments, extremophiles have attacked invasive cells like cancer or harmful bacteria without harming healthy cells. That’s one of the reasons why scientists think the organisms that thrive in Superfund sites could lead to medical breakthroughs.

In 2015, Mason started working with the Brooklyn-based incubator BK Bioreactor to map the DNA of the microscopic creatures that thrive in the Gowanus Canal. Because the Superfund site has a rich history of polluters, the incubator wanted to sequence—a technology that reads and records the DNA of microscopic organisms—the canal’s tailor-made extremophiles in an effort to find better ways to clean it up. Mason thought the DNA samples could serve double-duty and began mining them for strings of DNA that could be medically useful; and he’s not the first to suspect a Superfund site might hold the key to tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs.

When research chemists Andrea and Don Stierle accepted positions at Montana State University in the early 1990s, they found themselves in a small mining town, drained of project funding, and less than a mile from the largest Superfund site in North America: the Berkeley Pit.“It’s completely toxic but we knew things are living in there.”

“You’re most creative at rock bottom,” says Andrea Stierle. “Every time we run out of funding is when we find something new because we don’t have anything to lose.”

The Stierles were the first to look for medicine in a Superfund site. They’ve isolated compounds from the Berkeley Pit that could lead to new treatments for lung cancer, ovarian cancer and leukemia.

Like Mason, the Stierles have directed their latest research to antibiotics.

For the first time, the husband-wife team is patenting a potential drug that was born out of their Superfund research. The potential antibiotic is created through a careful process that involves growing two types of fungi extracted from the Berkeley Pit. The marriage produces what the Stierles hope will be an answer to antibiotic-resistant infections.

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