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July 11, 2018

WPI develops method to increase cancer drug production

Courtesy | WPI WPI professor Susan Roberts and her team are developing a method to increase production of a widely-used cancer drug.

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have developed a more efficient way to produce a widely used cancer drug by genetically engineering cells from a tree. 

The drug, paclitaxel - marketed under brand name Taxol - is used to treat ovarian, lung, cervical and pancreatic cancers. 

The drug is harvested from the Pacific yew tree, but it typically takes three one-year-old trees to produce enough paclitaxel to treat a single patient, according to WPI.

A team led by WPI professor and chemical engineering department head Susan Roberts in research journal INVitra Cellular & Development Biology, described a process involving the use of a bacterium transforming the tree’s cells to create metabolic changes to increase the yield of paclitaxel.

Roberts’ research, funded by a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant, includes eliminating cells from plant cell cultures not producing high amounts of paclitaxel.

Via genetic engineering, Roberts and her team hope to harness the metabolic pathways used to produce precursor molecules for the drug to develop higher producing cultures to be used in large-scale biomanufacturing. 

“We are trying to understand how cellular pathways are controlled by the cell so we can effectively engineer them and direct biosynthesis towards the molecules we are most interested in,” she said. 

The team is looking at other species of trees from different geographical areas to see if any produce more paclitaxel or if they can be easily engineered to do so. 

“What we’ve already accomplished could easily double production of Taxol consistently,” she said Roberts. “By combining different strategies, especially using the genetic engineering tool we just developed, we could expect multifold increases in production.

Roberts added the techniques being developed could help accelerate production of other plant-based medications.

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