May 30, 2008

Merck halts natural products research

Streptomyces cattleya, a microbe that produces thienamycinBad news: Merck has decided to close down its natural product research facilities. This means the end of CIBE (Centro de Investigación Básica de España) — or Spanish Center for Biological Research — located in Madrid, Spain. Since its creation in 1954, this center has been dedicated to the discovery of new compounds of therapeutical potential produced by microbes. These efforts led to the development of several useful medicines, including antibiotics (fosfomycin, cefoxitin, thienamycin), cholesterol-lowering drugs (lovastatin), and antifungal agents (caspofungin). In May 2006, Merck researchers hit the news with the discovery of platensimycin, a natural product belonging to a new class of antibiotics.

According to Chemical & Engineering News, the high costs are behind the decision to eliminate natural products research. Merck spokesman Ian R. McConnell explains to C&EN:

"The investment involved in finding these chemicals in the environment is significant. The products that came out of our effort have been significant as well, but that was over a 50-year period"
Sad, but true. Many thousands of natural samples need to be screened in order to detect a bunch of potentially useful compounds, most of which will never become a marketed drug. Turning a promising natural product into a useful medicine takes much effort and time (over 10 years) and, hence, money. So, perhaps it is understandable that most pharmaceutical companies dedicate only a very small fraction of their resources, if any, to natural product drug discovery.

However, even with that little dedication, many medicines in the market have a natural origin, being based in substances originally isolated from plants, microbes, etc. Can we imagine the possible results of investing in natural product research as many resources as those dedicated to chemical synthesis?

Natural compounds often have bizarre, complicated chemical structures and exert their biological effects through unexpected mechanisms. They are the result of an on-going combinatorial chemistry performed by organisms since the origin of life.

Are chemists that good?

Related links

A) About job cuts at Merck:
B) About CIBE:
C) About natural products in drug discovery:

Image credits:
Digital Atlas of Actinomycetes. Copyright: Society for Actinomycetes Japan. Contributor: S. Mochales. This strain produces β-lactam antibiotics, thienamycins. It has the color of cattleya orchids.

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