Monday, August 27, 2007

Toxic Cloud May Have a Silver Lining.

(At left) Berkeley Pit Lake in Butte, Montana. Photo by Chris Mueller

"We're all downstream."
- Ecologist's motto adopted by Margaret & Jim Drescher, Windhorse Farm, Nova Scotia

Ever since the first Paleolithic Ph.D applied for an NIH Grant, researchers have sought a "silver bullet" that would be effective against the legion of cancers afflicting humanity. Now hope may come from a most unlikely source - a toxic waste site.

The September 2007 issue of Wired Magazine features "Creatures From the Black Lagoon" by Guy Gugliotta - a former Washington Post science writer. This article chronicles how chemists Don and Andrea Stierle stumbled upon potentially useful microorganisms in an abandoned Montana copper mine. Berkeley Pit Lake was born after the open pit operation closed, and water was no longer being pumped out. Minerals leaching from the soil created a highly toxic lagoon. As a result, many an unfortunate creature breathed its last after dropping in for a drink.

But as Jeff Goldblum's character says in Jurassic Park, "Life, uh . . . finds a way." So resourceful BPL microbes fulfilled their Darwinian destiny - and adapted. The outcome was strains of bacteria and fungi that exist nowhere else in the world.

This discovery would have been reward enough for many scientists, but Don and Andrea then took their research in a new direction. Their lifelong passion has been to discover nautical plants and animals with pharmaceutical potential. So they did what any surf loving scientists would do when stuck in Montana - they brought the medical mountain to Muhammad (or Butte, as the locals call it). By subjecting their new bug buddies to the same assays they used with oceanic life, they discovered that some appeared to kill cancer cells. And that - as the white coats at Sloan Kettering will tell you - is a good thing.

The Stierles' work is preliminary, and requires further investigation. Hopefully Big Pharma will now get involved to determine if cancer fighting drugs can be developed from these candidates. I've come up with a few brand names for them: Tumor-Tox, Contamin-Oma, and Berkeley-Balm. And to give their campaign more zing, pharmaceutical sales reps could call on doctors' offices in HazMat suits! (Hey, I'm not married to the last idea - just spitballing here . . .)

Author Guy Gugliotta does a masterful job of presenting this story. His prose is clear and concise, which unfortunately is not the norm in science writing. Many technical journalists fall in love with their own special vocabulary, and forget that we mere mortals can't recite the periodic table by heart. In addition, Gugliotta's compelling imagery captured my imagination. While reading "Creatures From the Black Lagoon", I felt like I was watching a "Nature" TV program. The only thing missing was the sound track.

Gugliotta seamlessly moves his account forward, while covering such diverse topics as Butte's geography and economic history, the Stierles' academic credentials and research, NIH funding, and pharmaceutical drug discovery. The author's narrative flow made me believe that the entire story could have been written in one (really big) paragraph, without losing continuity or comprehension.

I live in New Jersey, whose unofficial nickname is "The Landfill of Opportunity". Thus I am painfully aware of how pollution can damage an environment. This story gives me hope that my state can also find something good in its toxic terrain.

You can find more about Berkeley Pit Lake at Pitwatch. I wish the Stierles continued success with their exciting work!

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