Scientists have succeeded in mass-producing a chemotherapy drug widely used against cancer – using yeast used by brewers to make beer.
Vinblastine, first developed in the 1950s, is one of the world’s most widely used chemotherapy drugs. But it can only be made using the Madagascar periwinkle, a plant native to the island that produces white, pink or purple flowers.
More than half a century ago, researchers discovered that the plant contained two chemicals that could stop cancer cells from growing by stopping them from dividing.
The two chemicals are vindoline and catharanthine, and the discovery led to the development of vinblastine by scientists in Canada a few years later.
Today it is used in the NHS to treat everything from bladder and testicular cancer to breast and kidney tumours.
Scientists have succeeded in mass-producing a chemotherapy drug widely used against cancer – using yeast used by brewers to make beer
It is given intravenously, usually through a vein in the arm, sometimes along with other cancer medicines, depending on the patient’s treatment. Despite scientific progress, researchers have been unable to find an easy and fast way to mass-produce the drug.
It takes at least 500 kg of dried Madagascar periwinkle stem and leaves to make just 1 g of vinblastine, which means that the plant must be grown in the wild on a large scale. The growing and drying processes can take months, and any drop in production, for example due to the weather, can disrupt the supply.
Between 2019 and 2021, there was a global shortage of the drug due to production problems, resulting in delayed treatment for many patients with cancer who did not respond to other types of chemotherapy.
Also, the complexity of the naturally occurring plant matter involved is so great that scientists have been unable to develop an engineered version that would circumvent the problem of relying on annual plant production.
The latest breakthrough, by a team of scientists at the Technical University of Denmark, could provide a solution.
They took common yeast — the kind used to make beer or bread — and genetically engineered it to grow and produce the plant chemicals that make vinblastine.
Yeast is an ideal alternative for growing periwinkle plants because it is not only cheap, but also because the genetic material can be easily manipulated and because it grows quickly.
But to come up with a form of the yeast that would produce the molecules they needed, the team had to remove dozens of its genes and add more from other plants.
The results, published in October in the journal Nature, showed that the Danish team managed to use the yeast as a mini-factory to successfully produce the chemicals needed to make vinblastine in a fraction of the time – less than a week – than necessary to grow. the plants, and possibly also in a larger volume.
Charles Evans, who is research information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Plants are a rich source of cancer medicines, but extracting them can be an expensive process.
‘The researchers have succeeded in mimicking almost all the complex chemical steps required to make vinblastine in yeast.
“Further research is needed, but this is a promising step towards cheaper ways to produce cancer drugs so that more patients can benefit.”
Have a guilt-free advent
Our selection of the healthier alternatives to calendars with sugar..
Behind each door is a festive figure made of 70 percent dark chocolate – rich in antioxidants that protect cells from damage.
BIRD & BLEND MATCHA
This includes 24 cans of matcha green tea, which contains EGCG, a substance with anti-inflammatory properties. Flavors include gingernut, toffee apple and spearmint.
Filled with pampering products for body, hair and home, including shampoo and shower gel. All made in Scotland.
Each window has a piece of flavored liquorice, which helps make red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body.
T2 SIP THE FUTURE
Open a door every day to find a new tea blend such as green rose and turmeric ginger ninja.
From £19.90, waterdrop. com
Waterdrops are soluble blocks to add to water. Each contains vitamins and no added sugars. Behind every door is a different taste.
PIP & NUT
€15, ocado. com
Behind each of the 24 doors you will find Pip & Nut’s dark chocolate peanut and almond butter cups.
Health benefits of coffee include antioxidants, which protect cells. Every day there is a different blend of ground coffee.
If you like dark chocolate, it’s filled with 100 percent cocoa nibs, with all the beneficial compounds like flavanols — one in particular, called epicatechin, is said to help keep blood vessels stretchy.
€25, popcornshed. com
For a treat that’s gluten-free and vegan, this has a bag of gourmet popcorn every day. Flavors include gingerbread, cherry pie, and chocolate orange.
PLAY IN CHOC
£49.95, playinchoc. com
Behind every door is a small toy and chocolate that is free of dairy, nuts, gluten and soy.