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Cell-Free Proteins

Bacterial innards plus chemical soup yields ingredients for drugs.

Protein-based drugs are a fast-growing class of new medicines, but they cost 20 to 100 times more to make than conventional drugs. One reason is that proteins can only be made by living cells, which are not very efficient producers. Researchers at Stanford University believe they can cut costs by doing away with the cells and instead exploiting the protein-making machinery inside them. Chemical engineer Jim Swartz and his colleagues have come up with a way of growing bacteria, busting them open, pulling out their innards, and adding a soup of chemicals that mimics the inside of a cell. Also tossed into the mix are amino acids (proteins’ building blocks), enzymes, and strands of DNA that encode the protein to be churned out. With no cells to keep alive, all those parameters can be fine-tuned for protein production. Swartz says the method can boost protein production five- to 10-fold and cut up to 80 percent of the capital costs. The researchers founded  Fundamental Applied Biology in San Francisco, CA, to commercialize the technique.

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