A More Efficient Means of Producing Medicine

At DCU’s Faculty of Science and Health, cutting-edge research takes place in labs across the campus daily. Scientists work behind sealed doors to find ways to enhance technology and medicine.

One scientist doing just this is Alan Costello, who is undertaking a PhD at the National Institute of Cellular Biology. Costello’s work focuses on Chinese hamster ovary cells, or CHO cells, which are widely used to produce complex drugs. “It was discovered decades ago that cells from the ovary of a Chinese hamster grew quickly and stably in the lab, and they have become a type of cell that lots of researchers and companies now use as little ‘factories’ to grow complex biotherapeutic molecules,” he said. “In particular, they are used in the bio-pharmaceutical industry, where giant vats of these cells are grown and kept happy and given instructions to produce specific molecules called recombinant proteins that are then used for medicines to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.”

Costello’s work looks at ways of improving the efficiency of CHO cells to produce recombinant proteins. What this means is that if you can get each cell to produce more protein in less time, you have a more efficient means of producing medicine. This was an area of study for Costello’s PhD, which he has now advanced. “To try and improve productivity, some people change the environment in which the cells grow,” he said. “The cells grow in a nutritious liquid medium, components of which have been optimized along with strategies on how to feed the cells, to keep them happy. But these approaches are reaching a plateau. So, I have been looking at ways to engineer the cells themselves to produce the required protein more efficiently. “We did that in a few ways. One of the more experimental approaches was where we engineered some messenger RNA, which is a type of molecule that gives the cells instructions about how to build proteins.

I wanted to build a piece of messenger RNA that was shaped in a circle and remove its normal stop signal, so that it would constantly tell the protein-building machinery to keep going.” Costello’s research was tried and tested on a well-known protein called EPO. The messenger RNA was designed so the cell would continue to make the protein. “The cells didn’t seem to like it much, but they made more of the EPO proteins, and importantly, the cells treated the proteins as normal in terms of sticking sugars onto them afterwards,” he said. “We published the findings in a journal called Metabolic Engineering and we got lots of positive responses.”