Cell factory

Anti-cancer drug brewed from baker's yeast

Engineered yeast cells can synthetically produce the essential cancer medicine vinblastine, an international team of scientists proved in a new study published in Nature.

Yeast cells, SEM. Photo: STEVE GSCHMEISSNER.
Michael Krogh Jensen, Jie Zhang and Jay D. Keasling. Photo: Anton Robin Vinther.

Yeast cells show promise in medicine production

The research further underlines recent developments within synthetic biology, where engineered yeast is used for medicine production. Other molecules that cell factories can now produce include potential drugs for treating cancer, pain, malaria, and Parkinson's disease.

Producing medications that are otherwise sourced from plants in industrial-scale fermenters using cheap and renewable substrates may alleviate future shortages and create a more sustainable economy independent of farmed or rare organisms.

Corresponding author Jay D. Keasling, Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley and Scientific Director at DTU Biosustain, has long been a synthetic biology pioneer at the fore in utilizing it to produce essential molecules. Case in point: In 2003, he successfully engineered E. coli bacteria to produce a precursor to artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug. Later, he would engineer the entire pathway into yeast cells, much like yeast cells may now be used to produce vindoline and catharanthine.

"The metabolic pathway that we constructed in yeast is the longest biosynthetic pathway that has ever been reconstituted in a microorganism. This work demonstrates that very long and complicated metabolic pathways can be taken from nearly any organism and reconstituted in yeast to supply much needed therapeutics that are too complicated to synthesize using synthetic chemistry. Because yeast is inherently scalable, this engineered yeast could one day supply vinblastin as well as the 3,000 other related molecules in this family of natural products. Not only will this increase the supply and reduce the cost of these products for consumers, but the production is also environmentally friendly because it eliminates the need to harvest sometimes rare plants from sensitive ecosystems to obtain the molecules."


The research project started in 2015 with a total budget of 9M € co-funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the European Union, and the BioInnovation Institute. It involved a cross-disciplinary team of scientists specialised in, i.a., chemistry, analytics, imaging, bioinformatics, machine learning and characterisation.

See the news story from Berkeley Lab: An Anti-cancer Drug in Short Supply Can Now be Made by Microbes.