Indian drug major Nicholas Piramal India Ltd is likely to be among the first pharmaceutical companies worldwide to develop drugs isolated from the flora and fauna of Antarctica.
It will shortly apply for patents for two drug leads for antibiotics and cancer developed from live microbes brought from the southern continent.
This follows participation by Shailendra Sonawane, a senior scientist from Nicholas Piramal's research and development centre, in an expedition to Antarctica from December 2005 to March 2006. The expedition was organised by the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.
"This was the first exploration by an Indian pharmaceutical company to develop drug leads from geographies like Antarctica," said Swati Piramal, director, strategic alliance, Nicholas Piramal.
"The live microbes in Antarctica exist in less than minus 50 degree Celsius, which prompted us to think of collecting rare species of microbes with potential drug leads," she added.
Commercial exploration of the region's natural resources is not permitted under an international treaty on Antarctica. However, a source in NIO's Antarctica Centre clarified that R&D was permitted and any commercial development to flow from the patent would involve collaboration with the government.
"The NPIL scientist was part of a collaborative research mission and any scientific benefits derived from the expedition will be pursued through a memorandum of understanding with the collaborators," the official said.
The Indian government has conducted 26 expeditions to Antarctica for scientific research.
Piramal explained that although microbes cannot be patented, it was possible to patent the results of the application of medicinal chemistry and computer drug design on them.
"The results so far are exciting and the pre-clinical screening is on. It is too early to say whether and when we could come up with drugs, since new drug discovery is a process of 10-12 years," she said.
While more than 60 per cent of the drugs in use are developed from the 150,000 known natural products or natural product derivatives, there are only about 10,000 marine resource-derived natural products.
Nicholas Piramal is also exploring rare microbes in the interior forests of the Amazon in Argentina in association with Nappo Pharma of the US, as part of a joint drug research programme since last year.
Nappo has established links with the tribals in the Amazon valley for exploring plant diversity. Research work is already underway in the US and India.
NPIL, in collaboration with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories, was also exploring the Indian coastal areas for new and rare microbes, said Piramal.
Last year, researchers with the Central Council for Research in Ayurveda and Siddha developed two energy-giving herbal food supplements, Antarctica Tea and Antarctica Laddoo, meant for Indian soldiers working in Siachen.
CCRAS also conducted a "unique human clinical trial" of these products in Antarctica to prove the high anti-oxidant character of the products.
Two years ago, researchers with the University of South Florida isolated a hormone, Palmerolide A, found in the ice brought from Antarctica.Advanced research at the US Cancer Research Institute led to the development of a drug to cure skin and related forms of cancer. The drug is now in the clinical trials stage.