Microbial Drug Factories
Synthetically engineered micro-örganisms could provide a cheap way to manufacture drugs
SOURCE: “Production of the Antimalarial Drug Precursor Artemisinic Acid in Engineered Yeast” D. K. Ro et al.Nature 440(7086): 940-943
RESULTS: Dae-Kyun Ro, Jay Keasling (who wrote a “Notebook” entry), and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, have genetically engineered yeast to produce large quantities of artemisinic acid, a precursor to the malaria drug artemisinin.
WHY IT MATTERS: Artemisinin combination therapies are an effective treatment for malaria. But the drugs, which are derived from the sweet wormwood tree, are expensive and in short supply. More-efficient manufacturing methods could reduce the cost of the malaria drugs to the point that a larger number of people in poor countries could afford them. The work also illustrates the great potential of synthetic biology – the attempt to design and create organisms to perform specific functions.
METHODS: The researchers re-designed the metabolic pathways of yeast to more efficiently make an artemisinin precursor called amorphadiene, which plants naturally make in small quantities. Using a newly identified wormwood gene, they further engineered the yeast to complete the last few steps of the synthesis process to create artemisinic acid.
NEXT STEPS: Keasling’s team will continue to fine-tune the system to make it even more efficient and therefore more cost effective. It will also scale up the manufacturing process in collaboration with Amyris Biotechnologies, a company in Emeryville, CA, that was founded to commercialize the technology.