Long before the biopharma industry came along, people relied on plants to produce medications. The homemade remedies were crude--but occasionally effective. Now chemists at MIT are reengineering plants to make their natural ingredients better at fighting diseases, including some of the most difficult ailments to treat.
Associate Professor Sarah O'Connor is leading a team that added bacterial genes to the periwinkle plant, helping to attach halogens to the alkaloids the plant routinely produces. Those alkaloids have pharmaceutical properties that the halogens enhance. And one of those alkaloids called vinblastine can be used to treat cancer. O'Connor's team is taking vinblastine--along with other drugs made by plants--and using them as scaffolds that can be modified to enhance their effectiveness.
"We're trying to use plant biosynthetic mechanisms to easily make a whole range of different iterations of natural products," she said. "If you tweak the structure of natural products, very often you get different or improved biological and pharmacological activity." One of their next steps is to make new compounds and then enhance the productivity of the plants.
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