The Story Behind the Anthrax Killer

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William Fenical made headlines in July when he announced a promising new candidate in the search for novel sources to treat human diseases, the latest in his long and storied biomedical research career at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

This time, Fenical identified a new compound from the ocean that effectively kills anthrax, the feared biological weapon, as well as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the bacteria that has proliferated in recent years and proven problematic to treat. Fenical and his colleagues called the new compound “anthracimycin,” and hold hope that one day it will lead to the development of a powerful new drug.

“The real importance of this work is the fact that anthracimycin has a new and unique chemical structure,” said Fenical, a distinguished professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical science at Scripps. “The discovery of truly new antibiotic compounds is quite rare. This discovery adds to many previous discoveries that show that marine bacteria are genetically and chemically unique.”

Fenical is quick to share credit for the discovery with a team of researchers in his laboratory. In this case special attention goes to Chris Kauffman, a staff research associate who has been part of Fenical’s team since 1991.

In the depths of Fenical’s research labs, Kauffman operates the group’s fermentation facility, a crucial area for teasing out promising compound candidates from the mind-boggling diversity of chemical structures found in the world’s vast oceans.

Kauffman also has emerged as the group’s field expedition leader in their search near and far for novel materials from the sea. He has logged more than 450 research dives to locations as close as La Jolla and as far as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Palau, the Philippines, and the Red Sea.

“The fact that I love being here is the reason why I haven’t left after 20 years,” said Kauffman, a native of Pennsylvania. “Bill Fenical is an incredible boss and on top of that you have a diverse group of people you meet here from all of over the world—and the opportunity for field work.”

The rise of anthracimycin traces its roots to one of Kauffman’s early field expeditions. In 1994 Kauffman was advised by Fenical to collect sediment samples off California’s coast. Kauffman did just that, packing up his car and driving up Highway 1 with sea sediment collection equipment.

“That one wasn’t a diving trip so I just pulled over in my board shorts at every beach I could find: Dana Point, San Louis Obispo, Monterey, you name it,” said Kauffman.

Out of the 150 samples collected and stored in a cooler in Kauffman’s vehicle, anthracimycin emerged from a sample plucked off Santa Barbara.

“Knowing that this work has human health benefits is a perk of the job and definitely a motivating factor,” said Kauffman. “I can’t beat coming to work every day at Scripps and that’s what’s kept me here this long.”

– Mario C. Aguilera

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