When the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was announced this month, the three winners had a couple key things in common. They had developed effective treatments for diseases that have been scourges throughout human history – and they found those treatments through the study of products that exist naturally in the environment.
The experiments of America’s William C. Campbell and Japan’s Satoshi Omura with certain bacteria occurring in soil led to the development of the drug Avermectin. It has revolutionized the fight against river blindness, a parasitic disease prevalent in Africa, Asia and Latin America. China’s Youyou Tu, meanwhile, investigated traditional herbal medicine to create Artemisinin. The drug has a powerful ability to combat malaria.
Their successes call to mind North Carolina’s own proud history in the field of natural products – and our ongoing pursuit.
Two of the most effective treatments for cancer originated at RTI International in the Research Triangle, where researchers Mansukh Wani and the late Monroe Wall discovered Taxol and camptothecin. They have become potent weapons against certain types of cancer.
Taxol, developed from the Pacific yew tree, is best known for its effectiveness against ovarian cancer. Camptothecin, obtained from a Chinese tree, works against colon cancer.
“When you walk into your neighborhood drugstore, a quarter of all the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you see there come from nature,” says Nicholas Oberlies, a chemistry professor at UNC Greensboro who trained with Wall and Wani at RTI. “If you’re looking specifically at anti-cancer drugs or antibiotics, that number jumps to closer to 60 percent.”
Penicillin is the best known of these. But it can take decades to make drugs from natural products, so, in the 1980s and 1990s, many pharmaceutical companies began relying on computer models and synthetic creations to accelerate drug development.
With the pendulum slowly swinging back toward natural products, Oberlies’ work is supported by three major federal grants. The largest, focused on identifying fungi that can help treat cancer, is funded by the National Cancer Institute. Research partners include several universities nationally and Mycosynthetix, a biotechnology company in Hillsborough.
Founded in 2001, Mycosynthetix’s extensive library of fungi has attracted research partners from around the globe. There are estimated to be 1.5 million to 5.5 million types of fungi in the world. Only about 100,000 of them have been named and a much smaller number have been studied for drug leads. Mycosynthetix is researching how fungi might support organic farming and help fight cancer, parasites and dangerous bacteria.
Similar work is under way on the coast, where MARBIONC – a research and development program based at UNC Wilmington since 2005 – probes for new products from marine life. Among its scientists discoveries: a new antiviral compound, several anti-bacterial compounds, a novel candidate for addressing cystic fibrosis and several potential anti-cancer agents.
There’s no guarantee that many of the researchers in this small but highly influential field will ever see their work land on drugstore shelves. But if it does, the benefits will stretch well beyond our state’s borders.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact and a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward