Researchers hope mines will help develop new drugs

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Associated Press

Posted on December 27, 2013 at 10:02 PM

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — University of Kentucky researchers are working to find out whether microbes from coal mines could help fight disease.

Soil from coal mines is being analyzed at UK's Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation lab, run by Jon Thorson. Thorson said because the microbes have to work harder to survive underground, they are more competitive, meaning they may be useful in fighting illness.

"It's very early stage, but there's a very strong precedent for this kind of development," Thorson told the Lexington Herald-Leader (http://bit.ly/1liUkJc ).

For example, rapamycin, used to prevent rejection of organ transplants, was discovered in a soil sample on Easter Island in the South Pacific. The antibiotic erythromycin is formed by bacteria found in soil.

Thorson's team is working with colleagues from UK's Center for Applied Energy Research and the Kentucky Geological Survey to retrieve necessary soil samples.

Thorson has also contacted geologist Jim Hower, who has been studying gas emissions from a fire in an abandoned underground mine near Lott's Creek in Perry County. When Thorson found out, he asked Hower about getting soil samples for the research.

"It sounded exciting, which it is," Hower said. "It was a little bit of an accident, but for everyone involved a fortunate one."

Much of UK's drug development using natural products stems from Kentucky's agricultural roots, and is based at the pharmacy school where researchers have looked into new uses for tobacco, or the possible cancer-fighting effects of the lobelia flower.

Thorson said many scientists now are looking to marine environments, such as material from the ocean floor or underwater thermal vents, for natural-products research.

"But mining is a really unusual environment that hasn't been tapped — all underground microbial communities," Thorson said. "How do they function? How do they survive? That's what's new."

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Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, http://www.kentucky.com

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