Organisms found in the Berkeley Pit's toxic water are leading to a scientific breakthrough, according to two University of Montana professors who are former Butte residents.
Andrea and Don Stierle paired together two fungi taken from pit water in Butte. That pair produced a compound that has the ability to fight drug-resistant bacteria in a laboratory setting.
The Stierles' new findings are published in a paper that appeared in The Journal of Natural Products last month.
The next step is to begin research to show if the new compound the Stierles created can be turned into a drug.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director at the Washington D.C.-based American Public Health Association, said by phone Monday that it could potentially take 10 years before the Stierles' discovery could make its way to the market. The compound would have to be tested on animals then tested on humans and also go through U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Issues such as how does the compound fight drug-resistant bacteria, is it safe for human consumption, and what are the potential side effects are all questions the Stierles will have to answer before it becomes an actual drug.
Despite that long road, Benjamin called the discovery "pretty exciting stuff."
State Medical Officer Dr. Greg Holzman echoed that sentiment, saying that the increase of "superbugs," bacteria resistant to antibiotics, is "a major public health issue," leaving health care professionals with "fewer treatment options."
The Centers for Disease Control's website reports over two million illnesses occur each year from superbugs. At least 23,000 people die annually of infections that cannot be treated due to drug-resistant bacteria.
Many of those deaths occur where sick people hope to get better — hospitals.
"Surprise, surprise, hospitals are a reservoir of sick people and antibiotic drugs, which makes them ripe for antibiotic resistance to develop," said Benjamin.
There are multiple reasons why superbugs develop, Benjamin said.
The reasons range from overuse of antibiotics to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animal feed. Throwing away antibiotics, which causes the prescription drugs to wind up in landfills and, ultimately, in the water supply, also results in organisms becoming exposed to drugs designed to kill them. The organisms then mutate and get stronger.
"The ones that survive are resistant to antibiotics," said Benjamin. "We need to address this."
The Stierles' attention has been on the possibilities of Berkeley Pit organisms becoming anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting agents for the last 21 years. Andrea said that work is ongoing. The Stierles got water samples from the Berkeley Pit in 1996. Andrea said she and her husband "could lock ourselves in our lab for the next 100 years and keep finding things" from those cups of water.
If the Stierles' discovery leads to an actual drug to fight superbugs, its origins will be pretty unique.
Andrea said the fungi from the Berkeley Pit are similar to fungi found in moldy bread, but the chemistry from the pit's fungi is different. Andrea believes the toxic environment in which the fungi grew may have caused them to evolve.
"For all of its awfulness, the pit and its fungi have continued to provide some amazing discoveries, including compounds that block inflammation and the spread of cancer cells," said Andrea. "We have to find silver linings where we can."
The next step for the Stierles is a bit more prosaic — fundraising. Though the university provides lab and office space, the Stierles have to find additional money to pay their salaries and health care and support their research.
"The road from … discovery … to the development of a new drug requires an alignment of the stars," Andrea said.