During its short existence the Centre on Marine Bioactives and Drug Discovery (MabCent) in Tromsø has analysed some 70,000 fractions of Arctic marine organisms. Patents on two molecules have been applied for and applications for another 20 will soon follow.
Professor Trond Ø. Jørgensen and his colleagues at MabCent find some extraordinary life forms in their search for marine organisms in the Arctic. One of the molecules that patent has been applied for, show promise in cancer treatment. The other is interesting because of its antibiotic properties. Applications for another 20 molecules will soon follow, with more in the pipeline.
“We think this is an excellent result given that we have been in actual operation for little more than one year,” says Professor Trond Ø. Jørgensen, Director of MabCent. The research centre, under the host institution the University of Tromsø, is one of 14 Norwegian Centres for Research-based Innovation (SFI).
The Barents Sea, where temperate waters carried north by the Gulf Stream meet the cold waters of the Arctic Sea, is home to an enormous diversity of marine biological organisms. These species have evolved characteristics specialised to the extreme conditions of their habitat. Now, researchers are tracking down these unique organisms in search of bioactives for use in medicines, food, textiles, the processing industry and research – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2009 the Norwegian Government launched a national strategy for marine bioprospecting. The Research Programme on Functional Genomics in Norway (FUGE) under the Research Council was assigned responsibility for coordinating activities in this emerging field, and MabCent, granted status as an SFI in 2007, has a key role to play.
Mass profiling of molecules
On the laborious task of profiling molecules, Professor Jørgensen says: “This is needle-in-a-haystack research, and our work has barely begun. While bioprospecting on land has been around for 80 years, profiling at sea only began 30-35 years ago. And we didn’t really get going in Norway until 2003.”
MabCent has at its disposal all the material which Marbank, the biobank in Tromsø, has been collecting since 2005. In addition, MabCent began undertaking its own collecting expeditions in 2008 and plans to continue doing so until 2011/2012. The sampling has focused on bacteria, algae and benthic (bottom-dwelling) marine species, and each year some 200 newly discovered species have been catalogued. When the centre receives a large amount of material, the scientists begin with mass profiling in order to identify molecules with potentially beneficial biological effects.
Hundreds of discoveries
First of all, the scientists must determine a new organism’s species. Next, extracts of molecules (known as fractions) from the organisms are isolated and systematically screened for potential biological activities. The researchers seek to discover some medicinal effect by attaching the fractions to cancer cells, pathogenic bacteria, etc.
At MabCent the primary focus areas are cancer, antibiotic and immunological effects, diabetes, antioxidants and useful enzymes.
“We’re dealing with testing here on a giant scale,” explains Professor Jørgensen. At the end of 2009 MabCent had tested 70,000 fractions. Among them the scientists found several hundred “hits” which can turn into valuable “leads”, i.e. compounds thought to possess biological effects of interest. Even at the earliest stages, the centre scours the international data to find out whether its discoveries have been previously described. If not, the green light for a compound can then be given.
“We’ve come to the point now where the challenge is to choose the most interesting hits with the highest potential commercial value. Our business partners have the final say in this selection. So far, we have gone ahead with a few dozen hits.”
When a molecule with known biological activity is found, it creates a basis for patenting.
Overcoming barriers between disciplines
“The profiling process involves a wide variety of scientists,” says Professor Jørgensen, “from the marine biologists who collect and determine the organisms’ species to the
chemical engineers who describe their molecular structures. In addition there are a number of medical fields involved in the screening of bioactive substances. It’s a considerable challenge to avoid technical bottlenecks and to ensure good communication between all these disciplines.”
Once MabCent has shown that certain molecules have properties of interest and the patenting process is underway, it is up to the business partners to follow through with the commercialisation.
Centre on Marine Bioactives and Drug Discovery (MabCent)
MabCent’s industrial partners are Biotec Pharmacon ASA, ABC-Bioscience AS, Lytix Biopharma AS and Pronova BioCare ASA.
Biotech Pharmacon deals in particular with activities related to enzymes.
ABC-Bioscience, a recently-established firm and a direct offshoot of MabCent, works with antioxidants and cardiovascular products.
Lytix Biopharma is a Tromsø-based firm working on cancer medicine.
Pronova Biocare has interests mainly related to diabetes and anti-inflammatory medications.
MabCent has an overall budget of NOK 180 million over eight years. Some 43 per cent of this is covered under the Research Council’s SFI scheme, while 25 per cent is funded by the business partners and 33 per cent by the University of Tromsø. The centre now has roughly 60 full-time and part-time employees.