Tobacco Engineered to Produce Anti-Cancer Drug—Crops as Drug Production Systems

Tobacco plants in the laboratory. Our extensive knowledge of tobacco genetics allows us to use them to produce plant-derived therapeutics.

Tobacco plants in the laboratory. Our extensive knowledge of tobacco genetics allows us to use them to produce plant-derived therapeutics.

A paper published in Science this week describes use of engineered tobacco plants to produce a precursor of etoposide, a key anti-cancer drug. The paper illustrates how engineered crops could be used for production of drugs or other compounds that are difficult to isolate or purify from natural sources.

Although etoposide is derived from a plant compound, little is known about its natural biosynthetic pathway. The authors of the paper first used genome mining to identify candidate genes that may be involved in synthesis of the etoposide precursor in its native host—the rare and slow-growing mayapple plant. Through a complex process of elimination, were eventually able to identify 10 enzymes involved in biosynthesis, and reconstitute the pathway in engineered tobacco plants.

The paper showcases some elegant scientific detective work, making use of both genomic analysis and classical genetic engineering to solve the puzzle of etoposide biosynthesis. The results presented also illustrate the potential benefit of engineering agricultural crops to be used as drug production systems, and generate hope for a much more abundant, easily cultivable supply of these and other therapeutic compounds.

The use of tobacco to generate an anti-cancer compound. Delightful science.

Here’s the Science Story

And the Paper
Lau, W. and Sattely, E.S. (2015) Six enzymes from mayapple that complete the biosynthetic pathway to the etoposide aglycone Science 349, 1224–1228.

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

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