Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

UC San Diego Researchers Create A 'Designer' Cancer Drug With Algae

December 10, 2012 1:01 p.m.


Stephen Mayfield, Ph.D., a professor of biology at UC San Diego and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology

Scott Lippman, director of Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego.

Related Story: UC San Diego Researchers Create A 'Designer' Cancer Drug With Algae


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up, researchers at San Diego say that algae is helping produce life-saving jobs faster and cheaper than traditional methods. It is 12:23 and you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The potential that algae can be used as a biofuel has been treating scientists for years. Another use for the aquatic organisms could revolutionize the treatment of disease. Biologists at UC San Diego are announcing today they've succeeded in engineering algae that it produces a drug for use in cancer treatment. Joining me to discuss how this was done and the implications for the future are my guests Dr. Stephen Mayfield is a professor of biology at UC San Diego and director of the San Diego Ctr. for algae biotechnology and Stephen welcome back to the program.

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: Maureen, thank you so much for having me on

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Scott Lippman is that the solicitor for cancer research at UC San Diego Dr. Lipman hello,


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Stephen the drug that was produced by algae is already made by a more scientific process using cells from mammals, so how would the algae process improve production of the drug?

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: So there's a couple of areas that it impacts first the recently made one that was already in clinical trials was we wanted to make sure we get a head to head production the algae produced version of it versus the show produced version and we need to demonstrate that it is just as just as safe and effective one second that we have an opportunity in algae to dramatically reduce the cost of production so what in the industry is called the cost of goods and we can also reduce what is called them as EAP ex which would we have to pay to reduce facility of the Dragoon we can impact is the cost of the clinical trials. Those are going to be the same

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Intentionally so you can make this drug using algae faster and cheaper

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's exactly right much cheaper, much quicker and we can go to scale much quicker then you can because believe it or not the cost of the production facility, the factory to produce what's called Biologics or protein therapeutics can be enormous, to half $1 billion to build the facility to make one drug.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It is hard enough for nonscientists I think to comprehend how a hamster cell can be engineered to produce proteins that can be used in drugs. How does an algae plant do that? How do you get an algae plant to produce what you need for the compounds?

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: Through a lot of pain and suffering the real answering is that algae are eukaryotic cells, eukaryotic are sophisticated cells, you and I are eukaryotes, bacteria are prokaryotes. We produce less proteins in bacteria and the calling but that's a very simple, they can't have complex folds or can be disulfide built, algae is eukaryotic like a CHO cell and (inaudible) very sophisticated proteins and the actual process that we do that is we identify a protein, we getting sequence, DNA sequence, we now have both synthesized, we no longer going: a gene from human anymore we simply find it in a database and there are companies that spend synthetically made the DNA for you they send them to us and we put them in what's called a transformation vector introduce that into the algae and screen for the ones producing the right protein.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Lippman, I want to get you into that conversation because the announcement that is being made today is for a drug that is used in cancer treatment and is for one of the drugs that's called a designer drug. Can you explain to us what the differences between a regular kind of generic drug that someone might take for cancer and age designer drug?

SCOTT LIPPMAN: Wells yes and the term the term designer drug generally means as opposed to drugs there are drugs that can be used to treat cancer and some very successful that are found in nature for instance Paxil which is a widely used drug is found in the bark of the type of tree and purified. Designer drugs are major drugs fortunate of cancer because we can't find weeks says in a tumor, we can find individual tumors and designer drug, we can make it synthetically, does not exist naturally, to block these certain pathways, we call them that a tumor depends on. We can go after the Achilles' heel of the tumors and so, this is the area of molecular targeted personalized medicine, drug development. That is generally what a designer drug means, he really means you invent a drug based on nine molecular defects in a tumor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Steve Mayfield was talking to us about the fact that producing these drugs making genetically engineering algae to produce these drugs could lower the cost of actually producing the drugs. How could lower cost drugs affect the marketplace and the delivery of healthcare?

SCOTT LIPPMAN: Extremely important. I mean, this report is extremely important because we are now dissecting every aspect of taking a discovery of a new potential drug and getting it into the process into the clinic to help patients and the process traditionally has taken very long, 15 to 20 years and millions of dollars to try to develop a drug and the drug may not work, so we are trying to get smarter about how we identify targets for drugs, how we make drugs, how we get drugs into the clinic and how we can do this in an efficient, cost-effective and most importantly a fast way because these drugs that we are seeing now are very potent in particular patients and individual subsets of patients and anything we can do to speed up any part of the process as Dr. Mayfield mentions are certainly a huge cost and clinical development which is somewhat report does not address that we are working on here that's complementary to what he's doing because I need to speed up and make every part of this we called translational pipeline to get to the clinic faster and better and his work is key in this way. It would save a tremendous amount of time and expense and since you brought up expense it is a big issue as I'm sure you and your listeners know that the cost of producing these drugs is very expensive and ultimately to the patient in the healthcare system so anything we can do to make it more efficient and less costly would allow more patients to get access to the drugs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Stephen in reading about this there is something that is fascinating and I'm wondering if you can explain it to me in the listeners in a way that we can really get it. But here's what I got out of it. There's something about algae's cell structure that makes it an even better, it makes it even better than other types of cells to produce drugs. Can you explain why that is?

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: I will try. Okay, and so inside every eukaryotic cell there is what we call subcellular carbon permits they are unique because they have a chloroplast and what the chloroplast us is status were all is photosynthesis takes place so it is an essential organelle for the plants in terms of harvesting sunlight and fixing CO2 but it turns out the biochemical environment inside the chloroplast is different than it is in the rest of the cell and the reason for that is because they came actually a long time ago, billions of years from photosynthetic bacteria. So in some ways they are a little bacteria like that they've been inside the eukaryotic cell for literally billions of your so they sort of borrowed all the complex machinery from the eukaryotic host. So we do that and we look at this and said oh, there there may be the potential that we could make a eukaryotic toxin, so a protein that would kill a eukaryotic cell data, but we can make it inside eukaryotic cell if we sequester it inside the chloroplasts, so first we tried just a toxin and it worked. We were all shocked because if just one molecule of that leaked out of the chloroplast it would kill the algae, dead. But no, no molecules link out suddenly decided to make something fancier than we started with the antibody toxin fusions some because they are eukaryotes they have the machinery to fold sophisticated parts of the protein but because they are a little prokaryotic in nature inside the organelle, the toxin does not tell them so now we have a eukaryotic cell making a protein that would kill the algae just the same way it kills human cancer cells but it is a question one part of the cell so it is in there, once we isolated and treating cancer with that it's very effective and kill some quite quickly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That allows potentially you to create more complicated drugs in that kind of a cell structure and then you could even in mammalian situation?

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: That's why we could not make these proteins in mammalian cells. So it's not just that we made one that looks like what is on the market now, we actually have a completely different process. We make it all in one shop, one stop shopping. We make the antibody, the toxin all of those are single protein inside the algae. The way the existing drugs are beginning the antibody in the CHO cell make the bacterial toxin in a cell, chemically link them together and repair find that takes an already expensive drug like an antibody and makes it way more expensive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just to be clear about this, there is a drug already in development to treat B cell lymphoma, which your algae-based drug does as well. And it would cost $100,000 per treatment.

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: That's right it is a very effective drug. But it is probably the most expensive drug on the market today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us again why you developed the same drug that is being development the other way.

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: Because in science you don't want to get too far out ahead of the curve as they say. So he could've gone and picked you know, type of cancer for which there was no existing treatment and made a drug to treat that but the problem is when you do that the rest of the scientific committee looks at it and said well maybe algae is only good to treat this one incident of it and how do we really know that it's really better and safer than existing drugs, so what you want to do for the proof of concept like this study want to take a drug that is very effective, needed the traditional system and then make it is close to that as you can so that you can really do an apples to apples, a head to head comparison, show that the algae produced version is safe, effective, efficacious, right, then once you have done that with the direct comparison and we can come make hundreds of thousands of other drugs that are potentially out there to be made.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some to limit implied it might help speed up the process of being approved if you did it that way.

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: That's exactly right

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Lippman, if this promise continues to be successful how do you think it's going to change the development of pharmaceuticals?

SCOTT LIPPMAN: I think we will be able to produce larger quantities of the new targeted drugs faster, more efficiently, and make them available. One of the issues when you develop a new drug like an antibody or targeted drug that we are talking about here is that often and early phase trials you don't have enough drug if it turns out to be very effective in the early trials, you often don't have enough drug to get into patients on a compassionate basis. This came out with receptive as you recall there was a Genentech compassionate lottery ticket to patients, drugs, this would allow us to make enough drug to be able to do not only initial studies but have it on hand so that he could get into patients quicker. So this would be an important as I mentioned an important aspect of the timeline and getting drugs ultimately to patients this would definitely speed up the front end, and at the cancer center we are speeding up the delivery and of speeding up getting protocols approved and these kind of agents to patients early because I will say that the field has changed quite a bit. Then, in this gallery now understand better what the drugs are doing and when the tumors are doing to really magic drug with a patient's tumor individually, you can see tremendous benefit in the earliest studies which you never saw before and some having enough drug on hand to really take this quickly when you see this benefit and really the first, and human studies is really very important part

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Steve Mayfield, you and I have talked on several occasions about developing algae as a biofuel, where are we in the process of being able to use algae as an alternative energy source?

STEPHEN MAYFIELD:We are getting a lot closer. As you know I am a founder of a company called Sapphire energy. They just commissioned A hundred acre facility in Las Cruces Mexico and came online in June this year, with a produce hundred and 20 metric tons of algal biomass over the summer process that into jet fuel and I believe the military will send be using that to find some of their aircraft around. So that is making good advances and I want to bring up a really important thing and that is the technology we are talking about today for therapeutics was very much facilitated by the in assessment that the department of energy and venture community meeting to biofuels. Everyone knows that medicine is important that something like an algae, maybe some people don't think that's the place we should invest money. Bioenergy everybody agreed it was a good idea so the last three years about $1 million, most of it from venture funding was put into algae biotechnology for biofuels and we directly benefited from some of the technology in this research.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, that to algae is potential in the medical field, Stephen, we just heard from Dr. Lippman and he sounds as if this all pans out this is going to be a really big and important change in the way that drugs are developed and people get the kind of drugs that they need. What are you hearing from colleagues the medical profession about these breakthroughs in using algae to produce drugs?

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: I think one of the really important things we have to point out is we made an enormous investment in this country starting about 20 years ago in medical biotechnology.I did want to say that we did put a lot of thought into it, but cost was not concerned. It was, the molecular era is here, we are sequencing genomes, the technology has arrived, let's see what fantastic drugs we can make and we did that. And there are beautiful the test designer specific drugs, very few off target impacts. But we didn't really sit down and think well can afford a drug that costs $100,000. So I guess it is a bit like the moon landing. We did it and it was a great outcome bushmen but we haven't done that many times because it was so expensive so now what we are doing is rethinking that and saying okay we speak these fantastic drugs, now how do we make them cheap? So what I'm hearing from a lot of people is finally, this technology that I personally have been pushing for many many years and people get tired of hearing me talking about maybe now people again and saying now we get it, other people made these fantastic drugs and how you're going to make them cheap, good for you, we are on board.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. I've been speaking with Steve Mayfield director for the San Diego Ctr. For algae technology and Dr. Scott Lippman director of Morris Cancer Center at UC San Diego. Thank you both very much for speaking with us.

STEPHEN MAYFIELD: Thank you, Maureen. Thank you Scott.

SCOTT LIPPMAN: Thank you, bye Stephen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Still ahead a conversation with punk rock legend Patti Smith. As KPBS Midday Edition continues. First some of the national headlines to keep you up to date this hour Djs on an Australian radio show are expressing deep regret for their hoax targeting Prince William's pregnant wife that apparently led to the suicide of the nurse who took the call. The radio show was canceled. Democrats are joining labor leaders in Michigan in a fierce battle against a push by Republicans and Gov. Rick Snyder to make it illegal to require financial support of the union as a condition of employment lesson for the latest news through the day here on KPBS. It's 12:43 you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Patty Smith is a rock legend. Her sound, her look earlier express her international fame back in the 1970s, then she took some private time raising kids and writing. Now after winning a national book award for her memoir Just Kids she's out with a new album and back performing. I spoke with Patty Smith when she came to San Diego in October to perform her music and poetry. Here is that interview.