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Better drugs, fewer plants

building-a-better-drug-portraitI remember when I was young and learning about Native people making use of plant products for drugs and other things. The one that really stuck in my mind was a plant that worked as a toothbrush. Mostly what I thought was, “How did anyone ever figure out that chewing on a twig could preserve teeth?” It seemed like a lot of people needed to chew on a lot of twigs before they made the connection.

What never occurred to me to wonder about is how that and all the other drugs that originated in plants got into the conveniently labeled bottles in the medicine cabinet.

It turns out that for more than half the drugs we take, someone still needs to go out and collect the plant then isolate the drug. This is especially troubling for drugs where the original source is either rare or endangered, as in the Himalayan Mayapple that I wrote about last year. It’s the only source for a commonly used cancer drug.

Now, in a new story in Stanford Medicine magazine, I detail how new methods of making drugs in a lab without damaging the original plants.

Chemical engineer Elizabeth Satteley, PhD, and biochemist Christina Smolke, PhD, have both devised ways of taking the drug-making genes out of a plant and putting them into either yeast or an alternate plant that grows well in the lab. The process they used is similar to the one that earned a Nobel Prize in 2015 for Chinese scientist Youyou Tu, PhD, who produced the malaria drug artemisinin in yeast.

In my story, I describe the benefits of a lab-grown drug:

Once a drug is being produced in a controlled way, it might be possible to introduce a slightly different raw material into the molecular assembly line, which could ultimately produce a better drug.

Or, by mixing and matching genes that make up a variety of different molecular pathways, scientists could create entirely new classes of drugs.

“We don’t have to be limited to what nature gives,” says Smolke. “We can take inspiration from the basic structures, then improve them to either enhance their therapeutic properties or reduce their negative properties.”

This is good news for our drug supply, and also for the plants that will no longer be the sole source for many drugs.

Previously: Precision health: a special report from Stanford Medicine magazineA computer kit could lead to better way to design synthetic molecules and From plant to pill: Bioengineers aim to produce opium-based medicines without using poppies
Illustration by Jason Holley

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