Using a partial synthetic process, scientists are at the verge of producing a natural cancer drug by extracting trabectedin or ET-743, a compound found in marine invertebrate.
By examining the genome of the tunicate along with the microbes, which live inside it using advanced sequencing techniques, the team could isolate the genetic blueprint of the ET-743's producer.
"A major challenge of sequencing genomes from samples containing a mixture of different organisms is figuring out which DNA sequences go with which organisms. We used bioinformatic approaches which allowed us to tease that apart," said Sunit Jain, Indian-American bioinformatics specialist at the University of Michigan's department of earth and environmental sciences.
The insights will make it possible for scientists to culture the bacteria in the laboratory without its host.
"Currently, many of these compounds can only be harvested in small amounts from host animals, which is unsustainable from an economic and environmental perspective," said Michael Schofield from the University of Michigan. "Our hope is that understanding the genomes of these micro-organisms and the chemical reactions that occur inside them will provide new avenues to economic and sustainable production of the medicinal molecules they make," Schofield added.
The drug has been approved for use in patients in Europe and is in clinical trials in the US.