Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Wham: Biotech Researchers Offer Clues to "Natural" Drug Development

There's been a unique discovery by biotech researchers who have developed a simple method to create natural drug products. While there will be a lot of work to transition this discovery into the large scale pharmaceutical industry, it really gives us a glimmer of hope that not all future drugs will be synthetic chemicals or bioengineered in some way.

Scientists have found a way to replicate assembly of antibacterial molecules in a process previously exclusive to cells. In other words, they found a way to produce new antibiotics inside cells in exactly the same way that the natural world produces them. This means that a whole new world full of natural drugs could someday be in our medicine cabinets.

Until now, only the intricate machinery inside cells could take a mix of enzyme ingredients, blend them together and deliver a natural product with an elaborate chemical structure such as penicillin. Researchers at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the University of Arizona have for the first time demonstrated the ability to mimic this process outside of a cell.

A team led by Scripps was able to synthesize an antibiotic natural product created by a Hawaiian sea sediment bacterium. They did so by combining a cocktail of enzymes, the protein catalysts inside cells, in a relatively simple mixing process inside a laboratory flask. The research paper, along with a companion study describing a similar process achieved at Harvard Medical School with anti-tumor products, is published in the September issue of Nature Chemical Biology. It was like using these little cells as miniature factories, to churn out an antibiotic as they would do in nature.

Dr. Qian Cheng, lead author of the Nature Chemical Biology research paper, said "This study may signal the start of a new era in how drugs are synthesized. Assembling all the enzymes together in a single reaction vessel is a different way to make a complex molecule."

While much more work is needed to employ this process on a mass scale, the achievement proves that such synthesis is possible relatively cheaply and easily. Complex products can be made without the use of man-made chemicals--this "green" chemistry could bring biotech and the natural products industry a lot closer than they've been in the past!


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