Indian scientist develops inexpensive method to isolate anti-cancer agent

India-born Ajikumar Parayil has developed what could turn out to be an inexpensive method to produce abundant quantities of a blockbuster cancer drug. The scientist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has succeeded in tweaking the biological systems of the common gut bacteria E coli to produce taxadiene, a precursor compound for paclitaxel, a drug widely used to treat breast, lung and ovarian cancers.

Paclitaxel was first isolated in the 1970s from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, but extracting it in enough quantities to treat even a single patient involved cutting down four fully grown trees.

Current production methods involve harvesting it from laboratory grown plant cells, but even with this yields are meagre and the drug is still expensive- about $10,000 per dose in the US.

Parayil and his colleagues at MIT and Tufts University in Boston have analysed the complex sequence in the process of synthesis of paclitaxel and used the knowledge to tinker the genes of E coli to produce taxadiene.

The results have been described in the journal Science on Friday.

Parayil, a post a postdoctoral associate at MIT, who had obtained a PhD from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam says the bacteria produces 1,000 times more of the precursor than any other engineered microbe.