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Don and Andrea Stierle are researchers in Butte, Montana who are looking at a toxic waste dump to find hope for a cancer cure.

What was once a copper mine for Atlantic Richfield is now a toxic soup that would be lethal to most living things – and yet is yielding some interesting apparently yet-unknown organisms:

But the pit itself is far from dead. Over the last decade, Mr. Stierle said, the couple have found 142 organisms living in it and have “isolated 80 chemical compounds that exist nowhere else.” (Source: New York Times)

So why is this a good thing?

In two papers published recently in peer-reviewed organic chemistry journals, the Stierles reported finding two compounds that showed initial success in killing breast and ovarian cancer cells in lines maintained by the National Institutes of Health.

None of this is proof that this will actually lead to a cure. But I love reading about efforts like these. The Stierles are not part of a well-funded effort led by big Pharma. They finance their work from their own funds and from a much-needed 2001 grant from the United States Geological Survey.

Don and Andrea teach at Montana Tech, Andrea only part time. But they are not new to the world of cancer drug research.

The Stierles won widespread recognition in the scientific community in the mid-1990s for discovering a fungus, native to mountaintops in the Pacific Northwest, that produces taxol, which is commonly used to fight breast and ovarian cancer. The fungus was found next to yew trees, which had long been the primary source of taxol.

The couple’s results were published in the journal Science, and they were awarded 11 United States and international patents for their discovery of taxol in the fungus and for developing methods to isolate and grow it.

They use their $12,000 in annual patent royalty payments to help fund their current research.

I love the idea of looking at something that is so toxic and seemingly worthless and mining for true wealth that could one day benefit the world. Ironically, the extreme toxicity may be what’s triggering the production of potentially helpful genes. Sort of turning the negative into the positive:

Microbes react to harsh conditions in the Berkeley Pit by switching on genes that otherwise lay dormant or by evolving through mutation and natural selection, Mr. Stierle said. Either way, they produce new chemical compounds, which the Stierles hope may benefit human health.

Lord knows we need many more efforts like this tackling the world’s weightiest challenges. Whether the Stierles find a cure or not – and we all hope they do – I applaud the spirit and passion behind their work. An inspiration for us all.

Good luck Don and Andrea!


To read the whole article from The New York Times:


October 9, 2007


In the Battle Against Cancer, Researchers

Find Hope in a Toxic Wasteland