Hyderabad: Scientist Jay Keasling gave the world its first synthesized organism to produce anti-malarial drug artemisinin by engineering Escherichia coli. Now, he is aiming to engineer the same, simple organism to produce the anti-cancer drug vincristine.
“This (the cancer drug programme) will make artemisinin look tiny (in terms of science and impact),” said Keasling, 43, adding that he is excited about the work which lies ahead in collaboration with Indian researchers.
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR, signed an agreement on 25 September with University of California at Berkeley, or UCB, where Keasling works.
While CSIR is working out the details of the project, Keasling, who was in Hyderabad to attend the 13th annual human genome meeting, is clear how he intends to proceed.
“We are good at engineering. So, we’ll build pathways inside the organism,” he said. “Indian researchers are good at biochemistry and genetics; so, they will clone genes from the plant and do all analytical chemistry.” Even though the basic idea of putting up an assembly line inside an organism may be familiar, because after artemisinin Keasling has moved on to making hydrocarbons in microbes, he says it’ll be tougher as “the molecular pathways are more complex” in vincristine.
Artemisinin is derived from the Artemisia annua plant and vinpristine is derived from Catharanthus roseus or Madagascar periwinkle.
UCB has licensed Keasling’s technology to pharma firm Sanofi-Aventis SA on the condition that the cost of the malaria drug produced will be low.
More than drugs, it’s diagnostics that are adopting advances in genomics. “In 20 years, all currently used anatomical pathology tests will be replaced by molecular testing,” said Charles Cantor, a founding member of the Human Genome Organization and founder and chief scientific officer at Sequenom Inc. in San Diego, California.
Cantor, who has founded three other drug discovery and bio-therapeutic companies in the US, is planning to partner with Indian researchers and industry to bring some of his inventions to India. For instance, Sequenom has developed a genetic markers-based diagnostic for Down’s syndrome, the most common chromosome disorder in humans, affecting anywhere between one out of 50 and one out of 500 live births.
“The current serum testing gives 10-30% false negatives, whereas with our new test, to be launched in the US early next year, the rate is less than 1%,” said Cantor. It’d be expensive, but differential pricing models will work for different countries, he added.
Such diagnostic tools may be beyond the reach of many in the developing world, but Cantor predicts the cost of whole genome sequencing will fall to about $100 (Rs4,640) in the next decade or so. Individuals will be routinely sequenced either “pre-natally or neo-natally” and a lot of “pre-symptomatic manipulation of diseases” will happen, using drugs, or changing diet or lifestyle.
This seems plausible, but when he says, “Like it or not, genetically engineered humans will be a reality,” the discomfort sets in. “The commercial reasons make it irresistible. Why wouldn’t one want to make a super-athlete?” he asks.
As genomics moves from theory to practice, it not only throws up ethical issues, but also profound genetic questions. Lalji Singh, geneticist and director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, aptly puts it: “We need to ask if humans are still evolving. Does natural selection still play a role in survival, given that our survival today is more dependent upon technology rather than genes?”