Unique Pinelands Bacteria May Make Medical History


Pinelands Commission Staff

      The treefrog is the most popular symbol of New Jersey’s Pinelands, but another form of swamp life here is getting some attention these days.

     Monobactums, invisible microorganisms produced by bacteria and believed to be unique to the Pinelands, may make medical history. Scientists from The Squibb Institute in Princeton are using monobactums to produce an an antibiotic drug that could be used to treat hospital-acquired infections, which are typically resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics.

     Squibb Institute scientist hope their monobactum drug, called SQ 26,776, will be widely used with a couple of years to combat certain diseases, particularly hospital-acquired infections that are resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics.  

     Squibb disclosed their findings on July 24 at the 12th International Congress of Chemotherapy in Florence, Italy.

     Before researchers at Squibb could develop the potential of the monobactum, they first had to find it. Although Squibb scientists and technicians screened over a million bacteria taken from various habitats around the world, in retrospect they needn’t have looked beyond the Garden State.

     “The irony of all this is that the answer was in our backyard,” explains Richard B. Sykes, associate director and chief microbiologist at Squibb. “The soil sample which led to the right compound came from the Pine Barrens only a few miles from our Princeton laboratories.”

     “Ironic? Perhaps. On the other hand, anyone familiar with a region that has produced such oddities as the Jersey Devil and pygmy trees knows that the Pinelands are a haven for the unusual. But what are the specific qualities of soil in Pinelands wetlands that produce the monobactum?

     “The fact that it’s natural and not sprayed with pesticides is an important factor,” says Sykes. The microbiologist also cites the soil’s acidity as a feature that is favorable to monobactums.

     The soil sample that contained the first monobactum was taken from the Wading River by a Squibb employee in November 1978.  Other monobactums were taken from the Goshen Pond swamp and from the Atsion Lake area. No other samples from anywhere else in the world contained monobactums.

     At the same time, the discovery was not exactly earth-shattering.

     “The monobactum nucleus that came out of that soil sample was only a structural clue,” Dr. Sykes notes. “It was not a useful antibacterial agent.”

     In order to develop the potential of the monbactum, Squibb left the microorganism in the hands of its best organic chemists in the Institute’s American and West German laboratories. Using the monobactum nucleus as a base, the scientists built many different compounds (associations of chemical elements) until they found a structure that worked as an antibiotic.

Simple is Beautiful  

     The beauty of the new antibiotic lies in its simplicity.  The foundation on which the antibiotic is built is less complicated than that of other antibiotics, such as penicillin. The simplicity allows for a more stable and durable antibiotic that will stand up to germs that seek to neutralize a drug’s effectiveness. In recent years, “microbiologists have tried to make penicillin more and more complicated so it won’t be susceptible to resistance,” explains Sykes. The monobactum antibiotic will be more effective against certain diseases because it starts from a much simpler base than penicillin and other antibiotics.

     The monobactum is simple because it is produced by the most basic form of life — bacteria, one-celled microorganisms, which represent the first stage of biological growth.  

     The second sage of growth are streptumycetes. These are sometimes called “branching bacteria,” much like a seed that sprouts tiny roots.

     The third state of growth is the fungus. It is more developed than the first two stages. The mold on stale piece of bread is an example of fungus.

     Today, all commercial antibiotics are derived from fungi.  Tomorrow, the bacteria-derived monobactum drug will be the first of its kind.

A Breeding Ground

     The uniqueness of the monobactum antibiotic will allow it to cure diseases that aren’t affected by present antibiotics, diseases such as E. Coli, a urinary tract infection, and Septicemia, a bacterial infection of the blood that can be lethal.

     Most of the afflictions that new antibiotic will work against are called noscomial infections. Noscomial is Greek for “hospital acquired.”

     “A hospital is a breeding ground for bacteria,” reports Sykes. This situation results from a paradox in pharmacology: As certain infections bacteria within a person’s body are treated by antibiotics, other bacteria are stimulated to greater, and perhaps harmful, growth.

     Another reason for hospital infections is the complexity of modern surgery, which leads to more infections that occur on the operating table. The problem is compounded by hospital patients’ especial vulnerability to harmful germs.

     “In recent times,” says Dr. J. David Williams, secretary general of the International Society of Chemotherapy, “the risk of life threatening infections from a whole range…bacteria has increased dramatically. SQ 26,776 appears specifically directed against this type of infection, particularly among hospital patients who are undergoing complicated medical and surgical procedures thought impossible even a decade ago.”

     The Squibb Institute maintains that the new antibiotic does not damage kidneys or impair hearing, at present the most serious side effects of the drugs used to combat most hospital-acquired infections.

     “We know that it kills the bad bus and we know it is tolerated by man,” says Dr. Kenneth Rabin, the Institute’s Director of Public Affairs.

Red Tape and White Rats

     Squibb may know that the drug is safe, but until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is convinced, the new antibiotic will remain off the American pharmaceutical market. No new drug may be sold commercially in the United States without an FDA license.

     Sykes says that SQ 26,776 will probably enter the world’s $9.5 billion antibiotics market around the end of 1983, but in Europe, where providing the safety and effectiveness of a new drug is less time-consuming, Sykes believes West German will be the first major market of the new antibiotic. The United States will probably be allowed to use SQ 26,776 in 1985, predicts Sykes.

     At this point, the new antibiotic is in the human pharmacology state of testing. That is, the FDA has given Squibb permission to test the drug on humans.

     The permission came only after Squibb completed the toxicology stage, which required detailed study of laboratory animals that had been given injections of the new antibiotic. The tests on the animals revealed no serious problems with the drug.

     There are three phases of the human pharmacology stage.

     The first involves tests of the drug on volunteers. Squibb has successfully completed this stage.

     The second phases, which Squibb is now about to embark on, involves clinical tests of the drug at hospitals. Approximately 1,500 hospitals are scheduled to begin administering the drug “within weeks,” according to Rabin.

     A third phases of pharmacology is a synthesis of the first two. The results of all of the phases of pharmacology, along with additional toxicology, along with additional toxicology tests, will be presented to the FDA in return, Squibb hopes, for a license to sell the drug.

     Proving the merit of the antibiotic, however, should be just a matter of time if the monobactum is really what Sykes says it is, mainly, “The most important thing ever to be produced by a bacteria.”  

Times-Advertiser, Pemberton, NJ, 10/12/81