How algae could change the world

A group of UC San Diego researchers are on the cutting edge of using algae to help solve many of the world’s problems.

Yes, algae — that green, slimy stuff often dismissed as pond scum — could become critical in creating new sources of energy and exciting medical breakthroughs. Now it’s even being utilized as a key component in a promising effort that could lead to   new cancer treatments at a fraction of today’s costs.

“Algae rocks,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of molecular biology at the La Jolla campus who also serves as director of UC San Diego’s California Center for Algae Biotechnology.

Mayfield is one of the founders of nearby Sapphire Energy, a private company turning algae into Green Crude, which can be refined into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. UC San Diego scientists and medical researchers, meanwhile, have been developing algae to produce drugs that one day could be used to treat medical conditions afflicting untold millions of people worldwide. 

And now algae are on the forefront in the fight against cancer.  That’s because it is ideally suited to act as a production system for protein-based drugs that fight cancer with a one-two punch: first by using an antibody to locate a cancer cell and then by using a toxin to kill it.

These “dual-domain drugs,” which Mayfield called “the future of cancer therapy,” are currently produced through a complex process so costly that a course of treatments for lymphoma can run more than $100,000. The new production method that uses algae could cost about one-tenth of that.

“When you have a drug that is that expensive, then you have a fraction of 1% of the people on this planet that can afford it,” he said. “There is something fundamentally wrong with that.”

Mayfield and his team of researchers set out seven years ago to show that a widely used green algae known as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii could create complex protein-based drugs in greater quantity and at a fraction of the cost of similar drugs derived from mammalian cells.

Within a few years, the team began producing drugs using algae that could treat a variety of diseases. In May, Mayfield’s group teamed with another group headed by Joseph Vinetz from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine to create an algae-based malaria vaccine.

“What the development of the malarial vaccine showed us was that algae could produce effective complex proteins,” said Mayfield, whose work has attracted funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By genetically engineering the algae, the scientists produced proteins with dual-domain abilities. “These proteins have great potential for the treatment of cancers and infectious diseases,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield’s team this year proved that algae-based drugs are effective in shrinking tumors in mice. The next aim is to show that these two-domain proteins can target and kill human breast cancer cells, again using animal models, a move that could lead to clinical trials on breast cancer patients as early as 2015.  If all goes as hoped, algae-produced cancer drugs could be on the market a few years after that, Mayfield said.

How to best summarize algae’s potential impact?

"This is the greatest thing since mayonnaise," he quipped. "I want to make drugs that are just as safe and that are just as effective but cost a fraction of what's out there now.”

—David Ogul, Brand Publishing Writer

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