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UC San Diego Researchers Create A ‘Designer’ Cancer Drug With Algae

Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at UC San Diego and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, talks to KPBS about genetically engineering algae so it produces a drug to treat cancer.

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Photo credit: SDCAB

An algae sample from the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.

The potential of algae for use as a biofuel has been intriguing scientists for years. Now another use for these simple aquatic organisms is being developed and it could revolutionize the treatment of disease.

Biologists at UC San Diego are announcing today they have succeeded in genetically engineering algae so it produces a drug to treat cancer.

Stephen Mayfield, professor of biology at UC San Diego, said this breakthrough is significant because his lab was able to make a designer protein using green algae.

He said one biotechnology company already has an effective drug to treat B-cell lymphomas in development. That drug has a proposed cost of more that $100,000 per treatment. The goal he had in mind was to develop a drug to treat the same cancers at a fraction of the cost.

His lab focused on treating this type of lymphomas to prove their method is as safe and effective as more traditional methods, Mayfield told KPBS.

"The best way to do that is to do a head-to-head comparison, or apples-to-apples comparison, so we made a very similar drug to what's already in clinical trials, so we could actually test that," he said. "Once we're successful with this, and we can show people the algae-based protein is just as effective and just as safe, then we'll look at all the other opportunities out there."

The algae-based "fusion protein" can be produced for less than traditional mammalian cell or bacteria proteins because fewer steps are required.

The protein is called a "designer drug" because it is made with a specific purpose, said Scott Lippman, the director of Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego.

"There are drugs that can be used to treat cancer, some very successful, that are found in nature," he said. "Designer drugs are a major thrust of the current development of drugs for cancer because we can find weaknesses in a tumor, we can find what a tumor depends on to grow, and we can design a drug, we can make it synthetically to block these certain pathways a tumor depends on."

Mayfield said his next step will be to develop a drug for a cancer with no existing treatment.

Claire Trageser contributed to this report.


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