Scientists May Be Able to Use E. coli Bacteria to Manufacture Effective Cancer Drugs

On June 2nd, 2017, a group of international researchers from the Novo Nordisk Foundation (in Denmark) published new findings that stated they had found a way to use bacteria to make cancer-fighting drugs. The researchers claim that they have found a way to turn bacteria into 'factories' that produce enzymes that are important for the fight against cancer.

Although the study was conducted in Denmark, its lead author was Dario Vazquez-Albacete, a Spanish scientist.

P450 enzymes: how they feature in recent research on cancer?e. coli bacterium

The enzymes that the researchers were stimulating bacteria to manufacture are known as P450 enzymes. These enzymes are produced naturally by plants, and they enable the plant to ward off microbes and predators. However, these enzymes can also help the human body to fight against cancer cells.

The researchers found that they could stimulate E. coli bacteria to produce these enzymes in large enough quantities to make cancer-fighting pharmaceuticals. Using bacteria in this way is called 'biosynthesis', which basically means organically or biologically producing a useful substance. The fact that E. coli bacteria are being used for this purpose is especially interesting, as this type of bacteria is more frequently featured in the news as a threat to human health. Now, however, it could be becoming a means to preserve human health.

Why not just use P450 enzymes straight from plants?

The new findings from the researchers at the Novo Nordisk Foundation did address the fact that plants are not a viable source of P450 enzymes if we want to use them to make cancer drugs. This is because, though plants secrete these enzymes naturally, they do so in very small quantities and what is more, extracting the enzymes from plants is very difficult. E. coli bacteria, however, can be stimulated to produce much larger quantities of the enzymes (indeed, the study speaks of 'industrial scale production' of the enzymes), and it is also much easier to extract P450 enzymes from bacteria. As such, this recent research presents a precise solution to what has been a frustrating problem for medical researchers.

How do the scientists cause bacteria to produce P450 enzymes?

This is achieved by modifying a bacterium's DNA. It can be adjusted so that the bacterium 'expresses' about 50 different types of P450 enzyme. The enzymes can then be used in cancer drugs (Taxol is the most prominent example here). These enzymes can be used not just in the fight against cancer, however. They can also be used to treat other diseases, among which is psoriasis.