The power of mining for a cure

Jon Thorson, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the UK College of Pharmacy, leads a team of researchers searching for exotic microorganisms living underground that could potentially lead to breakthrough cancer treatments.

Jon Thorson, PhD, thinks the next great treatment for cancer might be found in a very unlikely place – a coal mine.

Thorson is a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the UK College of Pharmacy and heads the UK Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation. He leads a team of researchers scouring subterranean areas of Eastern Kentucky, including abandoned coal mines, in hopes of finding particularly resilient microbes.

These exotic microorganisms – ones that survive in the harsh conditions below earth’s surface – produce natural chemical “superpowers” that allow them to thrive in areas otherwise inhospitable for life. It’s these superpowers that Thorson says could hold the key to developing new and effective treatments for diseases like cancer.

When Thorson’s team finds a microorganism in an environment like a coal mine, they take it back to the lab to harness its unique chemical compounds. These compounds are also known as natural products.

“Natural products, they’re basically molecules that have evolved for function over time,” said Thorson, who is also the co-director of the Drug Discovery, Delivery and Translational Therapeutics Program at the UK Markey Cancer Center. “You can make very minor changes to molecules that we already know, and that can lead to dramatic changes in the way that the molecules behave in the body.”

“You start with a leg up by working with unusual organisms and things that people have not investigated before.” 

– Jon Thorson, PhD

Natural product development has yielded major pharmaceutical breakthroughs before. A wide array of dependable drugs that treat conditions such as certain types of cancer, bacterial and fungal infections, and inflammation have all been found through the discovery of exotic microorganisms in unique places across the globe.

Thorson thinks the untapped subterranean environments of Kentucky – specifically coal  fires burning beneath the ground, underground coal mines and soil samples extracted from deep within earth through natural gas drilling – might be the next place for a breakthrough. Because coal fires burn at such high temperatures, for example, the microorganisms that are able to survive there are unique. And that uniqueness allows researchers to hit the ground running when looking for potentially life-saving natural products.

“You start with a leg up by working with unusual organisms and things that people have not investigated before,” he said.

Since Thorson’s lab began its coal mine sampling in 2012, it has isolated a handful of compounds with pharmacological potential that have advanced into further study.

One of these was discovered early on – a set of compounds that could restore the ability of cells to repress cancer growth. Qing-Bai She, PhD, of the UK Pharmacology & Nutritional Sciences Department and Markos Leggas, PhD, in the UK College of Pharmacy and Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation are currently studying the compounds in vivo, and the project recently achieved external funding to continue to advance.

The team also recently discovered that the mechanism of these natural products has relevance to treating malaria. The plan is to further explore this avenue of research through a collaboration with Kip Guy, PhD, the dean of the UK College of Pharmacy.

Additionally, the team is collaborating with UK researchers on compounds that may offer protection against alcohol-induced toxicities.

Looking to the future

Looking to the future, Thorson is hopeful to add to that list of promising compounds isolated from the Appalachian depths by streamlining the compound identification process to allow for the greatest chemical diversity.

As his team perfects the process, they’ll be charting a completely new territory in natural products development, because although there has been research into mines in other areas of the country and the world, his team is the first to utilize sites in Kentucky for this work.

For Thorson, that is precisely the point: “We’re one of the first natural products focus groups to be looking at those certain populations,” he said. “There’s something unique about Kentucky in terms of its environment – and that’s really the driver here.”