Talking ‘bout a pharma revolution

14 Jun 2016

Imagine curing obesity by eating fries made from genetically engineered potatoes, treating cancer by drinking a cup of tea, or controlling chronic pain by eating sunflower seeds.

In their sold-out Global Leadership Series event, Professor David Craik and Dr Sónia Henriques from The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience shared their inspired vision for a future where life-saving medicines are grown in fields rather than factories.

“The aim of our research is to create change for global health by developing a new generation of medicines that could deliver more effective treatments with fewer side effects,” Professor Craik said.

Professor Craik said these plant-grown medicines would be based on molecules called cyclic peptides, or cyclotides, that are naturally produced by plants, including common backyard plants such as the petunia and violet.

“Ordinary linear peptides are usually broken down quickly by the body’s digestive enzymes, so we use the chemical trick of joining the ends together to create ‘designer’ cyclotides that give the drug more time in the body to do its job.

“Essentially, with our designer cyclotides, we are re-engineering natural molecules from plants to add a desired pharmaceutical or agricultural activity.

“We can then incorporate this new cyclotide, which carries the desired benefit, into plants that can naturally reproduce it from one generation to the next.

“One pharmaceutical application would be to simply harvest the plant, purifying the drug to produce a tablet.

“We can also produce these therapeutic molecules in edible plants or seeds, allowing us to make more accessible and affordable drugs that will particularly benefit people in developing countries.

“Together with some sunlight, water and hard science, we’ve already had success producing a modified drug lead for obesity, which we hope to express in sunflower seeds, and a drug lead for prostate cancer in mustard seeds.”

So far, Professor Craik’s team has had success with re-engineering cyclotides to treat pain and obesity in animal and test tube models, with clinical trials on the horizon.

In future, he expects the strength and stability of cyclotides may also be used for drugs such as insulin, which currently has to be injected.

In the second part of the seminar, Dr Sónia Henriques shared her work to develop cyclotides as anti-cancer drugs. 

“Cancer is a challenging disease to treat as every cancer is different and it is difficult to find a good combination of drugs that will kill the cancer cells without killing the healthy cells or causing resistance to treatment.

“Most cancer targets are inside our cells. The difficulty with this is that you have to get drugs past the cell membrane barrier, which controls what gets in and out of the cell, before you can make an impact.

“We know cyclotides can cross the cell membrane barrier, so we could use them as a delivery system to target specific cancer-causing proteins inside cells.

“Our designer cyclotides have proven they can get inside leukaemia cells and block the cancer-causing proteins, which causes the leukaemia cells to die.

“We believe we can also use this approach to treat melanoma and target cancers that become resistant to other treatments, which could revolutionise cancer treatment as we know it.”

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Professor David Craik is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB). He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the 2014 recipient of the GSK Award for Research Excellence and Ramaciotti Medal for Excellence in Biomedical Research.

Dr Sónia Henriques is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB).