Cancer Drugs and Algae


UC San Diego biologists made headlines recently for developing new strains of algae that produce gasoline-like compounds to power vehicles. Now they’re employing the same technology to battle cancer.

In a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the biologists report that they have genetically engineered algae to produce a complex human therapeutic drug used to treat cancer. The development is important because it opens the door for making these and other “designer” proteins in larger quantities and much more cheaply than are now made from mammalian cells.

“Because we can make the exact same drug in algae, we have the opportunity to drive the price down dramatically,” says Stephen Mayfield (above, right), a professor of biology who headed the research effort.

Mayfield says the method could even be used to make novel complex designer drugs that can’t be produced in any other systems—drugs that could be used to treat cancer or other human diseases in new ways.

“You can’t make these drugs in bacteria, because bacteria are incapable of folding these proteins into these complex, three-dimensional shapes,” Mayfield says. “And you can’t make these proteins in mammalian cells because the toxin would kill them.”

Mayfield’s team genetically engineered algae to produce a complex, three-dimensional protein with two “domains.” One of which contains an antibody, which can hone in on, and attach to, a cancer cell. Another domain contains a toxin that kills the bound cancer cells. This “fusion protein” produced from algae is identical to one that is under development by pharmaceutical companies with a proposed cost of more than $100,000 per treatment, but could be produced in algae for a fraction of that price, the biologists report in their paper.

—Kim McDonald