Bacteria factories to produce cancer drugs? 

What’s good? My, my, my. 2017 is going by so quickly, we’re almost into mid-June already. Madness.

Hold off on the Dettol cleaning products, you don’t want to be killing 99.9% of bacteria just yet. Even though the 0.1% that remains makes it nearly impossible to rid the trace of bacteria, especially considering its rate of division/replication/reproduction (whatever you wish to call it) but I digress.


The bacterial production line. These little machines are everywhere. I think.

Researchers at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center of Biosustainability (Denmark) have come up with a method of producing the enzymes utilised by plants to defend against predators and microbes, known as P450 enzymes, within bacterial cell factories. The process could bring about large-scale production of the enzymes, which are constituents of cancer drugs.

P450 enzymes are used by plants to defend against microbes, herbivores and insects by way of synthesising chemical compounds, P450 being the name of a type of specialised enzyme known as cytochrome.

Darío Vázquez-Albacete (Technical University of Denmark), the lead researcher and lead author of the paper, published in Biotechnology and Bioengineering, that outlines the method, said “these powerful compounds can be used as active ingredients in drugs for treating diseases such as cancer and psoriasis.”

Vázquez-Albacete elaborated further, stating that “the new technique is a significant step forward, as plants produce P450 enzymes in very small amounts, extraction is very complex and sometimes we have to use polluting chemical synthesis processes which involve the use of oil derivatives. Additionally, some plant species such as the yew (Taxus baccata), from which the cancer drug Taxol is obtained, are endangered species.” In short,  it’s something extremely difficult to synthesise in terms of purity, or extract as it is only produced in miniscule amounts naturally. You could say P450 is like amrit (that’s elixir to you, in Panjabi/Hindi), gold dust essentially.

The research group devised a set of tools that allow proteins from P450-producing plants to be recognised by bacteria’s molecular machinery (see the above CBeebies style image, go on, laugh a little). The reason for utilising bacteria in the process is because they’re capable of of rapid growth when in controlled fermenters, allowing for the potential large-scale production of the P450 enzymes.

In order to do this, the research group altered P450 genes from plants and transferred them to E.coli (the most commonly-used bacterial strain available today as it takes very little time to reproduce), observing whether the production of larger quantities of the enzyme was possible. Vázquez-Albacete commented on the reasoning behind altering the DNA sequence of the genes, stating that “in order for the bacteria to properly express the enzymes, the corresponding DNA sequence must frequently be modified to facilitate ‘decoding’ by the bacteria’s system.”

During the study, the research group generated a reserve of DNA sequences that allowed them to express 50 or so P450 enzymes from different plants in E.coli. Some of these are involved in the production of Taxol, a cancer drug, whereas others are utilisted in the synthesis of ingenol, used to treat psoriasis.

A number of groups, including the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s team, are following the same line of research. An interest in the new technique has also been shown by various pharmaceutical firms. Watch this space ladies and gentlemen, this may be the thing to watch in the future. It seems the race is on to get this technique into mass production on an efficient scale to aid in the production of cancer drugs and other natural compounds, many of which are still unknown in terms of P450. A variety of other compounds are produced by plants, synthesised by P450 enzymes, to protect them from dehydration, the sun, predators etc.

There is still much to learn about P450 and that, that is exciting. To me anyway, you might think this piece was a load of crap and uninteresting but hey-ho, I think it’s super cooooooooool. Peace out.


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