In the latest example of medical science learning from nature to fight disease, California biologists say they have been able to genetically engineer algae to produce a complex and inexpensive naturally derived anti-cancer “designer” drug.
The advance, detailed in a research paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, opens the door for making these and other "designer" proteins in larger quantities and much more cheaply than current drug-manufacturing practices allow.
"Because we can make the exact same drug in algae, we have the opportunity to drive down the price down dramatically," said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at the University of California-San Diego. "You can't make these drugs in bacteria, because bacteria are incapable of folding these proteins into these complex, three-dimensional shapes. And you can't make these proteins in mammalian cells because the toxin would kill them."
The advance caps seven years of work by Mayfield's laboratory to use a green algae — known scientifically as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii — to produce a wide range of human therapeutic proteins in greater quantity and more cheaply than bacteria or mammalian cells.
Earlier this year, Mayfield's group engineered algae to produce a complex protein for use as a new kind of malaria vaccine. For their latest research, Mayfield and his colleagues engineered algae to produce a protein containing specialized antibodies that can selectively target and kill cancer cells.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and The Skaggs Family Foundation.