Arctic Antibiotics – The Hunt for New Medicines in the Arctic

By Polar Research and Policy Initiative
Figure 1: The future of medicine could be hiding here, on the Arctic seabed where unknown organisms dwell (NSF, 2005)

Micheil Page and Erin Willahan


At the intersection of globalisation, health, Indigenous rights and natural resource use lies the practice of bioprospecting for pharmaceutical products. Since time immemorial, humans have been using resources in their surroundings for medicinal purposes. From the Egyptians to the Greeks, various ailments were treated with certain plants and compounds, some of which are still used today in manufactured medicine. For example, the main compound in the popular analgesic, Aspirin, originally came from the bark and leaves of the white willow tree. In recent years, however, scientists have raised fears that our society is gradually developing a resistance to conventional medicines, most notably antibiotics. And now, the race has begun to look for the source of alternative organisms for future medicine. One such location that is reckoned to be the future of the pharmaceutical industry is the Arctic, which has spurred the rise of ‘bioprospecting’ in the Arctic ocean and examination of the organisms that make their home in one of the harshest ecosystems in the world.

The Rise of Resistance

The increasing global resistance to conventional antibiotics is a pressing and complex issue, though one that, largely, is not being adequately addressed at a global level. Resistance to the most widely used (and often misused) antibiotics can affect anyone, regardless of age, nationality, class or even medical history, and as such, many scientists are quickly looking into alternatives. 

Ordinarily, this would not be an issue, as tolerance and resistance to ingested compounds would normally accrue gradually. However, the risk is currently higher due to the abuse of basic drugs, often through unnecessary prescriptions, easy access provided by pharmaceutical companies, and even the presence of such compounds in the food we consume. This will make both complex and simple ailments and illnesses harder to treat, which will result in what the WHO identifies as a “post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill” (WHO, 2018). One study even predicts that if nothing is done to combat the global overuse of antibiotics and the resulting rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, infections will kill more people per year than cancer by 2050 (de Kraker, et al., 2016). As such, more research and the development of new alternatives need to occur sooner rather than later, else humanity will face an unstoppable epidemic that could decimate human populations. Medicine is seemingly returning to its roots, in the search of new compounds and organisms in every corner of the world that could help abate the problem.

Why the Arctic?

But why the Arctic? Why not the depths of the Amazon Basin? Or the peaks of the Himalayas? Certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is canvassing the world over for potential sources of new compounds for drug manufacturing in an ever-expanding field of research. But, the case for the Arctic is that it is a harsh environment throughout most of the year, reaching a minimum of -50℃/-58℉ in the dead of winter. These extremities have resulted in significant and unique adaptations in organisms that inhabit the region, and these adaptations may hold the key to new compounds and new medicines for the future.

Additionally, scientific knowledge of the Arctic is vastly incomplete in comparison to other regions of the world. With trends in the Arctic ice-sheet currently highlighting its decline, more and more of the region is available to be explored and potentially exploited. Additionally, about 80% of our oceans remains unmapped and unexplored. With such a significant degree of uncertainty as to what lies beneath its surface, the fact that the Arctic is mostly ocean makes it particularly compelling for researchers. Human progress has historically been driven by the unknown, and the limits to our knowledge of the Arctic are arguably helping to drive the campaigns to expand our knowledge of the region and its biotic inhabitants; more so when only 7 drugs based on marine resources are currently in circulation and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (Leary, 2008).

Bioprospecting in the Arctic

Currently, several teams head out into the Arctic in a year to conduct ‘bioprospecting’ missions. Bioprospecting is the process by which research is organised to find organisms from which medicinal drugs and other commercially viable products can be obtained, often through the examination of microscopic flora and fauna and the characteristics they exhibit. In the case of the Arctic, many scientific excursions have found organisms that have evolved unique and unusually potent chemical defences that could be very useful for the development of new drugs and antibiotics (Krause, 2018). 

Since 2007, one such team from the MabCent project has spent more than a full year at sea and sampled from over 1,000 different locations around Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. They have collected 1,200 different species of invertebrates and hundreds of species of microalgae, totalling more than 3,000 pounds of organisms. Although research may seem slow, having conducted missions for over a decade now, almost every time they return, they are hopeful. The Arctic can be a volatile and unpredictable region, and as such their plans can quickly be forced to change – but when this leads to the discovery of new organisms, unpredictability can be for the better. The variables present in this large-scale experiment create opportunities for different findings each time, further facilitating the development of potential new antibiotics.

Possibilities for application of their research come in various shapes and forms: from potential implications for the development of cancer-treatment drugs, to enhancing the capacity of farmed livestock, and even methods for aquaculture management in cold climates (Leary, 2008). For example, a company called Biotec ASA applied for a patent for a protein in the Iceland Scallop (chlamys islandica) that could have uses in future antibiotics. It is important to identify, however, that the use of Arctic resources is not limited to bioprospecting in the ocean – indeed it is also terrestrial. For instance, one patent from the Russian Federation includes the use of various arctic flora for use in medication for oral diseases, from Arctic Raspberry to Juniper trees.

Arctic Antibiotics

Figure 2: The Iceland Scallop, left, and the Arctic Raspberry, right; two organisms that have existing patents for future pharmaceuticals. Credit: Acélan and Nikita Tiunov respectively.

When Bioprospecting Becomes Biopiracy: Implications for Indigenous Rights 

While scientific exploration may seem benign, bioprospecting can become ‘biopiracy’ when it “appropriate[s] knowledge and biodiversity resources to gain exclusivity over benefits using intellectual property rights (IPRs) without sharing with Indigenous populations” (Liang, 2011). In cases that constitute biopiracy, the benefits derived from biological resources only travel in one direction and are not equitably shared with the inhabitants of the place where the ingredient originated. 

FPIC, Access, and Benefit Sharing in International Law 

The principles of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), access, and benefit-sharing for local and Indigenous stakeholders in both terrestrial and marine genetic bioprospecting missions is protected under the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO No. 169), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), amongst others. 

While melting sea ice is making the Arctic Ocean increasingly accessible for bioprospecting missions, much of it lies in a jurisdictional grey zone, outside of national waters or continental shelf boundaries. These areas are then subject to UNCLOS’ laws of the high seas, which do not necessarily invoke principles of FPIC nor benefit-sharing (Eritja, 2017).  

Despite this legal grey area, under soft law instruments like UNDRIP, Arctic Indigenous peoples hold inherent sovereignty over their traditional lands, waters, and biological resources (Article 26). Irrespective of nation-state boundaries, the Arctic Ocean’s waters are all connected. And for Inuit people, the Arctic’s waters and sea-ice are sovereign resources integral to subsistence, culture, and identity. 

According to the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Inuit people, as both providers and primary users, bear rights to not only traditionally harvested plants and animals in the Arctic, but also renewable resources including terrestrial and marine flora and fauna (Inuit Circumpolar Council, 2016). In their highly interdependent relationship with the Arctic environment, Indigenous communities also bear the brunt of any environmental damage incurred by development and extraction projects in the Arctic. As such, any projects in the Arctic Ocean must work with Arctic Indigenous organizations, communities, and leaders as key stakeholders in the planning, exploration, and benefits gained from mining of genetic resources. As Eritja explains: 

“While there is growing evidence of scientific and commercial interest in the biotechnology potential of the wild genetic resources of the Arctic region, sustainable use of the resources is fundamental to the welfare of Arctic communities. Arctic indigenous peoples are therefore entitled to be informed of any potential use of these resources, to consent to access, and to share benefits from the exploitation of these marine genetic resources.” (Eritja, 2017, p. 250)

To this end, the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s (ICC) official Arctic Policy provides clear guidelines for undertaking ethical scientific research in both the land and seas of the Arctic. Part of that involves solidifying Indigenous Knowledge (IK), as a valid and integral component of any scientific endeavour in the Arctic, complementary to “Western scientific” ways of knowing.

Traditional and Indigenous Knowledge 

Globally, the biggest market for the use of traditional plants by corporations is in pharmaceutical products (Reid, 2009). The use of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (TK or IK) to identify commercially viable drug ingredients is a widely known strategy for drug discovery (Liang, 2011).  

For example, Arctos Pharmaceuticals, based in Alaska, has taken out a patent for Vaccinium (blueberry) berries, leaves, and bark, citing their application to a variety of health problems (Leary, 2008, p.41). The company’s “title of invention” is “Vaccinium species compositions with novel beneficial properties” (Ibid), but one could hardly believe that the blueberry species, harvested since time immemorial by Indigenous Alaskans for its health and nutritional benefits, was somehow “invented” or “discovered” by a pharmaceutical company in 2003. Indeed, as we might have guessed, Arctos is statedly, “reliant on assistance provided by local indigenous communities to source appropriate plants based on indigenous traditional knowledge” (Ibid., p.30), and holds contracts with several Alaskan Native corporations to source its products (Carrizosa, et al., 2004, p.76). 

While Arctos does reference their Indigenous knowledge sources, a cursory glance at some of the other patents taken out for nutraceutical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic uses for biological resources in the Arctic region, like seal and fish oil and various berries, may indicate appropriation and/or theft. In many cases, where companies have more plausible deniability about the origin of the resource and have altered the genetic constitution in some way, reliance on Indigenous knowledge often goes unacknowledged and uncompensated. 

In part, this is due to a conception of IK as public domain ‘belonging to no one’ and therefore up for grabs to whomever ‘discovers’ it. This attitude is similar to the ways in which European colonisers believed they had “discovered” lands on distant shores, erasing the histories of civilisations that had been there for millennia. One of the major obstacles to the protection of Indigenous knowledge can be found in the hegemonic belief that “only expert knowledge produced by scientists allied with the industry was considered valid, whereas public opinion or ‘traditional knowledge’ was discarded as non-scientific and thus invalid evidence” (Goyes & South, 2015).

Because IK was not historically known via Western scientific methods and may not necessarily be attributable to an individual inventor, the intellectual property regime (IPR) was also never designed to value nor protect it. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), in its guide to intellectual property for Indigenous peoples and local communities, writes that “although TK and TCE [Traditional Cultural Expressions] existed long before the intellectual property system was developed, they were not considered worthy of intellectual property protection until quite recently” (WIPO, 2017). This highlights the integral imbalance of power in the global patent system as “a key part of how corporations construct their denial about any wrongdoing in cases where uncompensated and unrecognised Indigenous knowledge has resulted in patented profitable products” (Wyatt & Brisman, 2016).

Using Indigenous knowledge about plants and their uses hugely narrows the search for viable genetic resources. Biotechnology is dependent on biodiversity, and the places where Indigenous peoples traditionally live are typically the most biodiverse in the world (Secretariat on the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2017). According to the Arctic Council, the Arctic is inhabited by more than 12,000 species of flora and fauna that have adapted to their frigid environment. By narrowing their search to plants already used by Indigenous communities, IK provides an efficient and cost-effective shortcut to new products and, with it, profit for pharmaceutical corporations. More often than not, this shortcut constitutes biopiracy in its illegitimate appropriation of Indigenous resources without consent, compensation, or recognition of Indigenous ownership. All of which are bypassed via patent laws and IPR institutions that allow corporate monopolisation over the products derived from biological resources.  

Patents often favour corporate interests, are prohibitively expensive, and require funds that are inaccessible to some Indigenous communities (Reid, 2009). The patent system is further based on concepts of individual property rights that exclude protection for IK as communal knowledge that has accumulated generationally. Rather than working to protect IK, the patent system often enables corporations to use unprotected IK as the basis of their research, legally monopolise subsequent inventions, and then bar the original holders of the knowledge from obtaining a patent themselves.  Thus, in many biopiracy cases, IPR and patenting laws serve the interests of bioprospectors but do far less to protect the holders of the original knowledge. 

Current Progress and the Case of Krill

Current research shows that in the coming years, we will have a new round of antibiotics and other drugs that can help prevent the catastrophe of mass antibiotic resistance. Several patents and patent applications already have identifiable origins in biodiverse Arctic resources. In order to protect Indigenous rights to their intellectual property and traditional resources, implementation of existing legislative frameworks like UNDRIP is more important than ever. 

More so, scientists are potentially facing their own obstacles, in the nature of pharmaceutical industry itself. The vast, multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry releases new drugs on a yearly basis. Antibiotics, which do not command high prices and can be rendered useless by fast-evolving bacteria, are risky investments for drug manufacturers, who prefer to invest in the research and development of lifestyle drugs. For instance, investing in diabetes medication, meant to be taken every day for the rest of one’s life, is more profitable for a pharmaceutical company than an antibiotic created to be taken for more acute conditions (Krause, 2018).

The sustainable management of these resources is imperative to minimising unforeseen impacts that industry can have on this climatically vulnerable region. Take the current case of Krill Fisheries – and their years of mismanagement, for example. Krill are the forgotten hero of our oceans that play a fundamental role in their ecosystems. As filter-feeders, they consume phytoplankton and turn the largest available food source in the oceans into energy for its predators. They are a keystone species for the marine ecosystem in that they are a vital food source themselves, providing sustenance for predators big and small, from penguins to whales. Some studies even show that they have the capacity to digest and breakdown microplastics, which remain a pressing issue for our oceans (Dawson, 2018).

However, krill have been in a state of crisis in recent years. In the late 19th Century, krill fishing grew into a big industry with annual catches reaching into the thousands of tonnes. Krill are largely used in livestock fodder (particularly aquaculture) and as dietary supplements. There are also several pharmaceutical patents based on krill as a component. Our need for this vital, but miniscule, species has caused cumulative krill populations to decline by up to 80%, a marked anthropogenic impact (Nicol, 2018).

Recently, the krill fishing industry announced its support for an ocean sanctuary to protect the Antarctic ecosystem. If the plan succeeds, it will hopefully restore some balance to ecosystems. But this campaign offers a prodigal lesson in how we can better manage our use of polar resources, and the potential for similar implementation in future discoveries in the Arctic. 

Concluding remarks

Our knowledge of the Arctic and the secrets it holds is constantly evolving, but we have now hit a convergence of multiple crises. The Arctic ice-sheet is receding, international law is struggling to keep up with rapidly changing geographies, the geopolitical balance in the region is potentially destabilising, and meanwhile the world is facing an alarming wave of antibiotic resistance. In light of this, there is a pressing need for a more comprehensive, binding international legal instrument to establish clear guidelines and regulations for the interactions between nation-states, bioprospecting companies, and Indigenous peoples in bioprospecting activities. As bioprospecting missions increasingly set out for Arctic waters, the ICC has advocated for a better harmonisation between Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge and Western scientific research, as well as stronger IP protections for IK (Inuit Circumpolar Council, 2016). This starts with valuing our rich multiplicity of knowledge systems and prioritising cooperation between IK holders and Western scientific researchers as equal partners, from conception and research design through to access and benefit sharing of eventual results. Whereas denial of consent and benefit-sharing under a guise of assumed “global commons” perpetuates the marginalisation, theft, and erasure of Indigenous ways of knowing, ethical and cooperative research policy and practice will be our best hope for critical health innovation. As always, it will be interesting to witness the evolution of bioprospecting policy and research landscapes in the near future, as they adapt to an ever-changing Arctic and its myriad of players.


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Micheil Page is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is currently reading an MSc in Global Energy and Climate Policy at SOAS, University of London, specialising in Arctic governance and policy. He also holds a BA in Development Studies and Geography, also from SOAS, where his focus was on sustainable development. During his time at SOAS, Micheil has been actively engaged in multiple environmental projects. He is Co-Director of UniSolar, the UK’s first student-led community energy enterprise, which in 2016 successfully crowdfunded for the installation of solar panels on the roof of SOAS and now focuses on expanding into projects at other universities across the UK. Micheil also served as the Student Union’s Environment Officer, where he focused on promoting awareness of various environmental issues and reducing the use of single-use plastic water bottles across the university. Micheil also works in the Energy and Climate Division of Agora. His interests and publications have focused on the various intricacies of British environmental policy, from coal to sustainable ocean management.
Erin Willahan is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, where she focuses on connecting the intricate social, cultural, and economic realities of communities in Alaska to wider local-global dialogues across the Polar Regions. Born and raised in Alaska, Erin has worked in a range of fields related to Arctic issues. These include facilitating an ongoing project with the Alaska Division of Elections to translate official election materials into Alaska Native languages, research on cultural commodification in tourism, and working as a commercial fisherwoman. She is currently undertaking her MA in the Erasmus Mundus Human Rights Policy and Practice program. Her research interests revolve around decolonising Arctic discourse through Indigenous-led resource management policy, environmental justice in the face of climate change, and the ways in which sites of historical injustice are negotiated in North American Arctic communities.
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