Satellite Banner
Scientific Communities
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Biologists Engineer Algae to Make Complex Anti-Cancer ‘Designer’ Drug

Published: Thursday, December 13, 2012
Last Updated: Thursday, December 13, 2012
Bookmark and Share
Biologists at UC San Diego have succeeded in genetically engineering algae to produce a complex and expensive human therapeutic drug used to treat cancer.

Their achievement, detailed in a paper in this week’s early online issue of 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 can now be made from mammalian cells.

“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 UC San Diego and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology or SD-CAB, a consortium of research institutions that is also working to develop new biofuels from algae.

Their method could even be used to make novel complex designer drugs that can’t be produced in any other systems--drugs that could be used to treat cancer or other human diseases in new ways.

“You can’t make these drugs in bacteria, because bacteria are incapable of folding these proteins into these complex, three-dimensional shapes,” said Mayfield. “And you can’t make these proteins in mammalian cells because the toxin would kill them.”

The advance is the culmination of seven years of work in Mayfield’s laboratory to demonstrate that Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a green alga used widely in biology laboratories as a genetic model organism can produce a wide range of human therapeutic proteins in greater quantity and more cheaply than bacteria or mammalian cells.

Mayfield and his colleagues achieved their first breakthrough five years ago when they demonstrated they could produce a mammalian serum amyloid protein in algae. The following year, they succeeded in getting algae to produce a human antibody protein. In 2010, they demonstrated that more complex proteins—human therapeutic drugs, such as human vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, used to treat patients suffering from pulmonary emphysema—could be produced in algae.

Then in May of this year, Mayfield’s group working with another team headed by Joseph Vinetz from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, engineered algae to produce an even more complex protein—a new kind of vaccine that, preliminary experiments suggest, could protect billions of people from malaria, one of the world’s most prevalent and debilitating diseases.

“What the development of the malarial vaccine showed us was that algae could produce proteins that were really complex structures, containing lots of disulfide bonds that would still fold into the correct three-dimensional structures,” said Mayfield. “Antibodies were the first sophisticated proteins we made. But the malarial vaccine is complex, with disulfide bonds that are pretty unusual. So once we made that, we were convinced we could make just about anything in algae.”

In their latest development, the scientists genetically engineered algae to produce a complex, three-dimensional protein with two “domains”—one of which contains an antibody, which can home in on and attach to a cancer cell and another domain that contains a toxin that kills the bound cancer cells. Such “fusion proteins” are presently created by pharmaceutical companies in a complex, two-step process by first developing the antibody domain in a Chinese hamster, or CHO, cell. The antibody is purified, then chemically attached to a toxin outside of the cell. Then the final protein is re-purified.

“We have a two-fold advantage over that process,” said Mayfield. “First, we make this as a single protein with the antibody and toxin domains fused together in a single gene, so we only have to purify it one time. And second, because we make this in algae rather than CHO cells, we get an enormous cost advantage on the production of the protein.”

The fusion protein the researchers in his laboratory produced from algae is identical to one that is under development by pharmaceutical companies with a proposed cost of more than $100,000.  This same protein could be produced in algae for a fraction of that price, they report in their paper. And the UCSD researchers—Miller Tran, Christina Van, Dan Barrera and Jack Bui, at the UC San Diego Medical School—confirmed that the compound worked like the more expensive treatment: it homed in on cancer cells and inhibited the development of tumors in laboratory mice.

Mayfield said such a fusion protein could not have been produced in a mammalian CHO cell, because the toxin would have killed it. But because the protein was produced in the algae’s chloroplasts—the part of algal and plant cells where photosynthesis takes place—it did not kill the algae.

“The protein was sequestered inside the chloroplast,” Mayfield said. “And the chloroplast has different proteins from the rest of the cell, and these are not affected by the toxin. If the protein we made were to leak out of the chloroplast, it would have killed the cell. So it’s amazing to think that not one molecule leaked out of the chloroplasts. There are literally thousands of copies of that protein inside the chloroplasts and not one of them leaked out.”

Mayfield said producing this particular fusion protein was fairly straightforward because it involved fusing two domains—one to recognize and bind to cancer cells and another to kill them. But in the future, he suspects this same method could be used to engineer algae to produce more complex proteins with multiple domains.

“Can we string together four or five domains and produce a designer protein in algae with multiple functions that doesn’t exist in nature? I think we can?” he added. “Suppose I want to couple a receptor protein with a series of activator proteins so that I could stimulate bone production or the production of neurons? At some point you can start thinking about medicine the same way we think about assembling a computer, combining different modules with specific purposes. We can produce a protein that has one domain that targets the kind of cell you want to impact, and another domain that specifies what you want the cell to do.”

Further Information

Join For Free

Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 3,500+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More Than 5,100+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Genome Sequencing May Help Avert Banana Armageddon
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and in the Netherlands have discovered how three fungal diseases have evolved into a lethal threat to the world’s bananas.
Friday, August 12, 2016
‘Human-on-a-Chip’ Could Replace Animal Testing
Researchers are developing a “human-on-a-chip,” a miniature external replication of the human body, integrating biology and engineering with a combination of microfluidics and multi-electrode arrays.
Monday, June 13, 2016
Unveiling the Complexity of Mysterious Protein Folding
Imagine trying to reverse engineer a car when all you have is a finished product or a box full of parts — no instructions.
Wednesday, June 01, 2016
Study Identifies How Brain Connects Memories Across Time
UCLA Neuroscientists have boost ability of aging brain to recapture links between related memories.
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Transcription Factor Isoforms Implicated in Colon Diseases
UC Riverside study explains how distribution of two forms of a transcription factor in the colon influence risk of disease.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
An E.coli Detector May be in Your Hands Soon
Hand-held device that can be used to detect a variety of pathogens—including foodborne pathogens like E. coli—at all stages in the food supply chain, from fields to restaurants may be available soon.
Monday, May 16, 2016
Fructose Alters Hundreds of Brain Genes
UCLA scientists report that diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reverse the damage.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Study Yields the Key to Effective Personalized Medicine
A team of UCLA bioengineers and surgeons has taken a major step toward making personalized medicine a reality.
Monday, April 11, 2016
Tracking RNA in Live Cells
Technique may open doors to new treatments for many conditions, from cancer to autism.
Friday, March 18, 2016
Cat Stem Cell Therapy Gives Humans Hope
By the time Bob the cat came to the UC Davis veterinary hospital, he had used up most of his nine lives.
Monday, February 08, 2016
Crowdfunding the Fight Against Cancer
From budding social causes to groundbreaking businesses to the next big band, crowdfunding has helped connect countless worthy projects with like-minded people willing to support their efforts, even in small ways. But could crowdfunding help fight cancer?
Monday, February 08, 2016
Toxic Pollutants Found in Fish Across the World's Oceans
Scripps researchers' analysis shows highly variable pollutant concentrations in fish meat.
Friday, January 29, 2016
Key Enzyme in Pierce’s Disease Grapevine Damage Uncovered
UC Davis plant scientists have identified an enzyme that appears to play a key role in the insect-transmitted bacterial infection of grapevines with Pierce’s disease, which annually costs California’s grape and wine industries more than $100 million.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Science Magazine Names CRISPR ‘Breakthrough of the Year’
In its year-end issue, the journal Science chose the CRISPR genome-editing technology invented at UC Berkeley 2015’s Breakthrough of the Year.
Monday, December 21, 2015
Genome Sequencing May Save California's Legendary Sugar Pine
The genome of California’s legendary sugar pine, which naturalist John Muir declared to be “king of the conifers” more than a century ago, has been sequenced by a research team led by UC Davis scientists.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Scientific News
Integrated Omics Analysis
Studying multi-omics promises to give a more holistic picture of the organism and its place in its ecosystem, however despite the complexities involved those within the field are optimistic.
Unravelling the Role of Key Genes and DNA Methylation in Blood Cell Malignancies
Researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center have demonstrated the role of Dnmt3a in safeguarding normal haematopoiesis.
Salford Lung Study - The First Real World Clinical Trial
In this podcast, we learn about the Salford Lung Study and its potential to revolutionize the way we assess new drugs and treatments around the world.
Point of Care Diagnostics - A Cautious Revolution
Advances in molecular biology, coupled with the miniaturization and improved sensitivity of assays and devices in general, have enabled a new wave of point-of-care (POC) or “bedside” diagnostics.
Mass Spec Technology Drives Innovation Across the Biopharma Workflow
With greater resolving power, analytical speed, and accuracy, new mass spectrometry technology and techniques are infiltrating the biopharmaceuticals workflow.
NIH Study Determines Key Differences between Allergic and Non-Allergic Dust Mite Proteins
Researchers at NIH have uncovered factors that lead to the development of dust mite allergy and assist in the design of better allergy therapies.
New Mechanism of Plant RNA Degradation Identified
Researchers have identified a novel mechanism by which RNA is degraded.
Achieving “Green” Desalination
Workshop explores ways to reduce or eliminate the carbon footprint of seawater desalination plants.
NIH Contributes to Global Effort to Prevent and Manage Lung Diseases
The large scale trial will measure health benefits of clean cookstoves.
Study Finds Key Regulator in Pulmonary Fibrosis
Researchers identify an enzyme that could open the way to therpies for chronic fatal lung disease.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
3,500+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
5,100+ scientific videos