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E. coli Used in the Fight Against Cancer

Genetic engineering can help preserve endangered species

Since 1978, Escherichia coli has been used in the development of synthetic “human” insulin (1). More recently, E. coli has become an essential part in the development of cancer drugs (2). Researchers at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability in Denmark have developed a method for the large-scale production of P450 enzymes using E. coli as a cell factory. P450s are usually extracted from plants and used to synthesize a variety of drugs through an environmentally harmful process. Plant P450 enzymes are essential in the biosynthesis of active ingredients of cancer drugs, such as Taxo (2). A model of this protein can be seen in the illustration above.

P450 enzymes generate a variety of different compounds, which plants use to protect themselves from the sun, dehydration, herbivores, insects, and microbes. Researchers at Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability modified and transferred the P450 genes from plants to different E. coli strains to determine whether the microbes could produce functional enzymes. They developed a toolbox of DNA sequences capable of expressing approximately 50 P450 enzymes from different plants. Although the function of many compounds synthesized by P450s are not fully studied, their availability through this new method provides a huge potential in the development of new drugs (2).

Tragically, these enzymes are extracted from plants, such as Taxus baccata, which are an endangered species (2). Using engineered E. coli as the cell factory provides a yield 10-fold higher than plants and is less harmful to the environment (4). A focus on this new method using engineered E. coli provides a better alternative for the advancement of cancer drug development, while protecting endangered species and the environment.

By Elide Herrera

Technical Services Microbiologist I

References: 1234

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