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In their ongoing quest to develop the latest and most effective drugs for disease treatment, researchers at the University of Kentucky are looking deep — as in, deep underground.

It's all part of a new UK-based bioprospecting initiative, which involves a collaboration between UK's Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation (CPRI), the Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER), and the Kentucky Geological Survey (KGS). The idea behind the program is to collect samples from unusual environments throughout the Commonwealth, with the goal of finding new, unique organisms that produce natural products that could potentially be used to develop new drugs with an initial focus on treatments for cancer, infectious disease and inflammation.

CPRI Director Jon Thorson and his 11-member lab team are part of a large consortium of investigators at UK focused upon the discovery and development of natural product-based drug leads from unique sources including bacteria, fungi and plants. His team purifies and grows unique compounds from the samples they collect, and these samples are then placed in the new UK natural products repository so that researchers across campus may access them for use in their studies.

Thorson's program has only been up and running for just over a year, but his team has already deposited more than 75 compounds in the repository — and all have come from microbes that were found in the Commonwealth. Could Kentucky's natural landscape potentially yield the next big cancer drug? Thorson, who also serves as the co-director of the Markey Cancer Center’s Drug Discovery, Delivery and Translational Therapeutics Program and co-director of the Drug Discovery and Development Core in the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science, has high hopes.

"Natural products have been and continue to be a driving force in drug discovery," Thorson said. "And the hope is that some of tomorrow’s therapies may come from the coal mines here in the Commonwealth."

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