BUTTE, Mont., Oct. 10, 2006 -- At the beginning of the 20th century, Butte, Mont., was called the "most prosperous town" in the United States.
Local lore has it that there were more millionaires per square mile in Butte than in New York City.
Copper was the reason. Every bullet manufactured for American troops fighting in World War I had its origin in Butte. One-third of the entire country was electrified using copper from the Butte mines.
Now the legacy of one of the city's largest open-pit mines may someday produce a medical miracle -- cancer-fighting drugs.
"We could potentially find compounds that could affect any type of cancer," said Montana Tech's Dr. Andrea Stierle. "Prostrate cancer, lung, brain cancer."
Stierle and her husband, Don, have discovered microbes that are effective against cancer cells isolated in test tubes. As remarkable as that discovery may be, equally remarkable is that they came from the Berkeley Pit -- the nation's largest Superfund site.
The former open-pit copper mine, which measures a mile by 1.5 miles and is more than 900 feet deep, contains 40 billion gallons of highly toxic waste left over from the copper mining days.
The reddish-brown water -- ground water that seeped back into the pit after the mine was closed in 1975 -- is filled with metal residue and an amazing variety of "extremophiles," which are organisms named for their ability to thrive in the poisonous brew.
"It's real exciting," Don Stierle said. "We've carved a niche in a unique environment and gotten very lucky."
The Stierles have identified more than 160 different fungi and bacteria. They have shaken, stirred, separated and analyzed the organisms down to the molecular level.
Their laboratory is stacked high with Petri dishes, filled with colorful cultures derived from the extremophiles.
"Some of the microbes in the pit may be every bit as valuable as any ore that was taken from that same area," Andrea Stierle said.
Don Stierle explained that the microbes kill off other organisms and therein lies their potential to fight rapidly dividing cancer cells.
"Like any organism growing with other organisms, they compete for space," he said. "They've gotten good in that competition for space, killing other organisms."
The National Cancer Institute has analyzed some of the Stierles' microbes.
But the institute says a lot more research must be done before the extremophiles find their way into a useful cancer-fighting drug.
In fact, it's estimated that from the time a discovery is made, the investment in toxicity studies, preclinical and clinical analyses, and other required steps typically costs pharmaceutical companies nearly $1 billion.
As for the pit, there are plans to clean it up.
But the Stierles say the extremophiles they've collected can be replicated so their research will continue. In addition the Stierles believe they might be able to help with the cleanup.
Don Stierle says they have found microbes that could prove useful.
"We've found some interesting organisms that might play a role in the future of cleaning up the water in the pit," he said. The organisms would neutralize the acidity of the water and absorb dissolved metals.
Two yeasts that could clean metals out of the water have already been identified.
But the most exciting possibility lies in the possible drug applications.
"It's still miles away from a cure, but it raises the possibility, certainly the potential, of helping with these horrible diseases," Andrea Stierle said.
"I've personally been visited with ovarian cancer when I was diagnosed seven years ago," she said. "Fortunately they found it very early, but it really brings it home."