Coal mines produce what's sometimes called black gold, but researchers at the University of Kentucky hope the mines could hold something even more valuable — a miracle drug.
A team from the Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation has been gathering samples from deep underground in Eastern Kentucky to see if the microbes that survive there could be put to use fighting disease.
"We've found a number of really unusual microbes," said Jon Thorson, who heads up CPRI.
"It's very early-stage, but there's a very strong precedent for this kind of development," Thorson said.
For example, the drug rapamycin, used to prevent rejection in organ transplants, was first found in a soil sample on Easter Island in the South Pacific. Erythromycin, an antibiotic used to treat a range of infections, is also formed by bacteria found in soil.
In Kentucky, soil from coal mines is taken to Thorson's lab, where it is analyzed. Microbes that exist so far underground must fight extra hard to survive.
"It makes them more competitive," Thorson said, and that means they might hold components that could be used to fight disease.
And if deep in the earth isn't unusual enough, what about soil found in an environment that's ablaze? A fire in an abandoned underground mine near Lott's Creek in Perry County was found in 2011, but no one is sure exactly how long it had been burning. It provides a very stressful and interesting place for microbes to develop.
Jim Hower, a geologist who studies coal at the Center for Applied Energy Research, has worked at that mine for several years, studying gas emissions from the fire. A former staff member from Hower's department transferred to the pharmacy school and mentioned Hower's work to Thorson, who emailed Hower about getting some soil samples from the fiery site.
"It sounded exciting, which it is," Hower said. "It was a little bit of an accident, but for everyone involved a fortunate one."
Although Hower is more interested in the coal itself, he said it doesn't surprise him at all that the soil in a mine, especially one that's on fire, could yield pharmacological treasure.
"It's a whole world we know very little about, when you start talking about what's in the soil," Hower said. "It's so complex, and for the bacteria, there's a lot of variety in there — you get an environment that's hotter than typical, maybe has some of these gases permeating through it, there's different things happening in there that could lead to a very different environment."
Thorson was lured to Kentucky from the University of Wisconsin, where he also focused on development of natural products. In addition to directing the CPRI, he is co-director of the Markey Cancer Center's Drug Discovery, Delivery and Translational Therapeutics Program and co-director of the Drug Discovery and Development Core in the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science.
"Kentucky has a really strong core natural products research program, and our program really synergizes with those groups," Thorson said.
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.
Research in natural products is huge all over the world, and right now, Thorson said, many scientists are looking to marine environments, such as material from the ocean floor or underwater thermal vents.
"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."