A team of scientists at the Technical University of Denmark have genetically engineered yeast to recreate vinblastine, an anti-cancer drug which was in short supply between 2019-2021. It is hoped this breakthrough will pave the way to creating more synthetic anti-cancer drugs.
Vinblastine belongs to the monoterpene indole alkaloids (MIAs) category, a biologically active group which is known to be useful for fighting an array of diseases. However, they are highly complex, meaning they are difficult to produce synthetically.
The scientists did 56 genetic edits to programme the 31-step biosynthetic pathway into baker’s yeast. This genetic engineering produced vindoline and catharanthine, which was then purified and coupled to make vinblastine. More work will be needed to scale the production, however the researchers believe that the yeast cells could be used to produce over 3000 naturally-occurring MIAs and millions of new-to-nature analogues in the future.
Michael Krogh Jensen, a senior researcher at DTU and one of the corresponding authors, commented: “In this project, we were looking for new ways of manufacturing complex chemistry essential for human health, although the technology may also be useful in agriculture and material sciences. Biotechnology offers something exciting because chemical synthesis is difficult to scale, and natural resources are finite. We believe a third approach is needed: fermentation or whole-cell manufacturing. The assembly lines known from nature are plugged into microbial cells and allow the cells to produce some of these complex chemicals.”
Other molecules that cell factories can now produce include potential drugs for cancer, malaria, and Parkinson’s disease.
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