Plants are the source of many important medications. But when the plants that are needed are expensive or difficult to find, it can become a major problem for pharmacists. However, one Stanford scientist has come up with a potential solution to this issue.
Professor of Chemical Engineering Elizabeth Sattely has discovered how to isolate the molecular producing material of an endangered or rare plant and assemble it within another plant, perhaps one that is more readily available.
Professor Sattely says, “This was a challenge, because plants are pretty complicated. They’re pretty difficult to work with. Their genomes are very complicated.”
The professor and her team worked with a plant known as the mayapple, which is from the Himalayas. The mayapple produces precursors, or derivatives, of a drug called etoposide, which is a chemotherapy drug used to treat many types of cancers. Etoposide is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.
Unfortunately, the mayapple grows slowly, and its supply has been declining for the past several years.
Sattely and her team tried out many combinations of the plant’s proteins until they were able to determine which proteins produced the etoposide precursors.
The scientists then placed the proteins into a different plant, in this case a wild relative of tobacco, Nicotiana benthamiana. This plant is widely available and easy to grow.
The experiment was a success, as the plant started producing the etoposide precursor.
Professor Sattely eventually hopes to make microbes, such as yeast, produce useful molecules. Such innovations have been enlightening the science community in recent times.
For instance, earlier this week, German Scientists figured out how to make modified yeast produce THC, which is best known as the chemical that “gets you high” when you smoke marijuana. Meanwhile, another group of scientists from Stanford have made yeast produce hydrocodone, an opioid used to treat pain.
Such breakthroughs figure to make drugs less expensive and more accessible.
Using yeast to produce drugs is simpler and less costly than using regular plants. The supplies involved are very inexpensive, and the yeast can be endlessly manipulated.
For now, Sattely is very optimistic about this new technology.
"The promise of the field of synthetic biology is that you can get cells to make or do anything you want," she says.