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Organisms' medical potential attracts attention

September 26, 2006

More than an ornament or a basic source of food, photosynthetic organisms have the potential to be among the toughest cancer fighters and best biofactories available for humans.

ASU and Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) in Mexico have established the Collaborative on Biotechnology Research Grant Program to support scientific research projects that can have direct application in industry, government and society.

Several scientists competed for $200,000 available through the program to support their research projects during the next two years.

The winners for this year are professors Guy A. Cardineau and Willem Vermaas from ASU's School of Life Sciences. They will join Marco Rito-Palomares and Manuel Zertuche from Centro de Biotecnología del Tecnológico de Monterrey.

The team formed by Cardineau and Zertuche will direct a project focused on the genetic modification of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) to obtain a production system to express, and then extract, transgenic proteins of medical value from green tissue.

The clinical application of the target protein for this specific project can be used to support the recovery of patients exposed to chemotherapy, as well as treatment of different diseases, such as anemia.

“Plants have been demonstrated to be very efficient producers of proteins,” Cardineau says. “Plant production systems for therapeutic proteins have the potential of reducing costs – and, as a result, provide a significant benefit.”

The proposed protein has commercial value, but the project will serve as a model for the expression of valuable proteins in plants that also could be used to improve nutrition and provide alternative sources of energy, among many other potential uses.

Vermaas' and Rito's project will attempt to extract cyanobacteria-produced pigments that can be used for various purposes.

Vermaas says the goal is to develop an efficient and cost-effective method to harvest compounds produced by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) without killing the organism.

“With our system, we are trying to use cyanobacteria as ‘milking cows' that can provide the desired substances more than one time,” Vermaas says.

Working together on projects like these will open many doors for students to experience how science can have a direct impact in society, Rito says.