Rewriting Life

Pond Pills

Protein-based drugs are big business, worth more than $17 billion a year. Genetically engineered bacteria and yeast efficiently churn out many protein pharmaceuticals, but as the proteins get more complex, the simple microbes sometimes fail. Drugmakers must then turn to increasingly expensive systems to make the proteins, which drives prices through the roof. Pittsboro, NC-based Biolex may have found an alternative: genetically engineer duckweed, a flowering pond plant, to secrete human proteins. The tiny plants grow very rapidly in a simple nutrient solution-doubling in population every 36 hours-and contain exceptionally large amounts of proteins. Biolex has proved the plants can do the work by using them to make complex therapeutic proteins such as interferons, which are used to treat some forms of cancer and hepatitis. The company is tweaking the system to increase efficiency and says that duckweed-produced drugs could be ready for testing in two to four years.

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

You've read of free articles this month.