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article imageCancer drug moved from rare plant to lab yeast

By Tim Sandle     Sep 13, 2015 in Science
Researchers have manufactured a common cancer drug from a yeast in the lab. Previously the important drug could only be obtained from a rare and endangered plant in the wild.
Although modern medicine has led to many synthetic drug products being produced, a high number of active ingredients are still produced from plants. Instead of pushing ahead for new chemical variants, Stanford University researchers decided to look at a rare plant and see if a similar plant could be created in the laboratory to deliver a much-needed medication.
The new process means that a drug that was in short supply and hard to obtain can now potentially be produced on a larger scale. Moreover, the drug produced from the laboratory yeast is said to be more stable than the "wild" version.
For the study, the researchers examined a leafy Himalayan plant called the mayapple, a herbaceous perennial plant. The plant flowers in May, although its fruit (the "apple") does not appear until the summer.
The plant produces a natural chemical which is used to deter predators. This same chemical was found, several years ago, to have anti-cancer properties. Using this plant, a cancer drug called etoposide is produced. The drug, used for chemotherapy, has been in use since 1966.
The problem with the mayapple plant is that it is hard to grow and hard to find. By studying how the chemical is formed (which happens when the plant leaf is broken), the research group broke down 31 possible candidate proteins to 10 key ones and then worked out the pathway triggered for the formation of the toxin.
Having identified the pathway, genetic engineering studies were run using a common yeast to try to replicate the toxin production process. After several attempts this was successfully achieved and the researchers have been able to produce the anti-cancer drug on a small scale under laboratory conditions.
The next stage of the research, having locked down the molecular machinery at play, is to determine if the drug can be produced commercially on a larger scale.
The finding has been reported to the journal Science. The paper is headed “Six enzymes from mayapple that complete the biosynthetic pathway to the etoposide aglycone.”
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