Seaweed yields 'superbugs' clue

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The Independent Online
TOM WILKIE

Science Editor

Beachcombing biologists have discovered a powerful new antibiotic that will fight diseases caused by "superbugs" which are immune to other antibiotics.

Researchers from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh discovered that the antibiotic is produced by microbes growing on seaweed on the shores of the Firth of Forth at north Berwick.

It is particularly effective against the MRSA bacteria - methicillin- resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Deaths from MRSA infection have been soaring over the past decade as the bacterium is prevalent in hospitals and is unharmed not only by penicillin, but by almost all other antibiotics.

The pharmaceutical industry has been unwilling, however, to take up the Heriot-Watt findings and provide the biologists with financial support to continue their work, according to Professor Brian Austin, head of biological sciences at the university. The industry is unused to dealing with marine micro- organisms rather than the ones derived from soils to which they are accustomed.

Antibiotics kill bacteria and some of the most effective ones are produced by other bacteria - to kill off their neighbours in the competition for a food resource. It has been standard practice for years for researchers seeking new drugs to do the equivalent of going out of the laboratory, taking a spadeful of soil from the flower-bed across the road and screening the millions of bacteria it contains to see if any of them might have a medicinal use.

Professor Austin said their discovery carried the message "that the sea seems to offer potential for the next generation". But he warned: "If today someone decided to commercialise it, it would take years and literally millions of pounds before it could be available in the clinics."

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