Searching the Deep Sea for New Antibiotics

In this episode of Symptomatic, we look at drug-resistant infections, and whether the new cures we desperately need can be found at the bottom of the ocean.

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Apr 19 2016, 10:15pm

Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have been celebrated as a miracle cure-all for dozens of infections that once spelt death. Now they're becoming useless, as overprescription and overuse in mass farming lead to the rise of drug-resistant "superbugs."

Each year, 23,000 Americans die of drug resistant infections, and that number is only projected to increase. By 2025, it's estimated that more people will die from these drug-resistant strains than cancer.

Despite the overwhelming need for new kinds of drugs, few companies are willing to invest in expensive research that might not result in profit.

In this episode of Symptomatic, Motherboard pays a visit to William Fenical, the researcher who believes that the solution to antibiotic resistance lies at the bottom of the ocean.

For decades, Fenical and his team at The University of California-San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography have explored the deepest corners of the ocean to uncover never-before studied bacteria. In the past 15 years, he's isolated over 18,000 individuals strains, some of which he believes might hold the cure to drug-resistant infections.

He just might be right. In 2013, Fenical and his team successfully isolated a compound from a bacterium found off the coast of California that was shown to be effective in fighting MRSA, an extremely dangerous strain of staph infection that often impacts already vulnerable patients in hospitals.

In this episode, we visit Fenical at his lab and learn how the world's last unexplored frontier, the deep sea, is home to an untapped resource of cures for some of the world's scariest infections.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the University of San Diego, a private Roman Catholic university, instead of the correct University of California-San Diego, a public research university.