Antarctic fungus can bring cheaper cancer drugs

At Researchers from Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, and National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research, Goa, have isolated a fungus from Antarctic soil and moss that can produce an anti-cancer drug used to treat Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), which is a common form of childhood cancer.

The drug produced from the Antarctic fungi will be cheaper and lead to fewer side effects than the ones currently available in the market, according to researchers whose findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports this month.

ALL is a type of blood cancer where immature white blood cells are produced in excess. The chemotherapeutic enzyme currently in use to test ALL, L-Asparaginaseis, isolated from bacteria such as E.Coli and E. Chrysanthemi grown in a liquid medium.

“The Antarctic fungus, on other hand, can be grown on solid mediums, mostly agricultural waste like rice husk and wheat bran and does not need specialised medium, which brings down the cost of production,” said Dr Devarai Santhosh Kumar, principal investigator and associate professor in the department of chemical engineering at IIT Hyderabad.

“The method can be easily scaled up. We already have the fungus stored in a frozen state so that we would not have to go back to collect samples for expansion of production,” he added.

The National Cancer Registry programme puts the incidence of ALL in various parts of India between 16.9 and 61.3 per million for boys and between 10.3 and 45.8 per million for girls under the age of 15. At present, the drug costs around ₹2,000 for a vial of 10,000 units, and the monthly cost of treatment ranges between ₹10,000 and ₹20,000.

“The dosage depends on the height and weight of the patient. ALL patients have to take it from at least six months to several years, depending on when cancer goes into remission. Most people – six or seven of 10 in India – are not able to afford it. Hence, there is an urgent need to develop and make cancer drugs in India to bring down the costs,” said renowned oncologist Dr PK Jhulka.

The enzyme blocks the supply of asparagine, an amino acid needed for synthesis of proteins, to cancer cells preventing its growth and proliferation.

“However, L-Asparaginase is always found in amalgamation with glutaminase and urease, which cause the serious side effects.

There has been ongoing research to eliminate these proteins during purification. In this case, we found that the fungi actually produces pureL-Asparaginase, meaning there will be fewer sideeffects,” said Dr Kumar.

Of the 55 samples collected fromSchirmacher Hills, Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica, 30 isolates had pure L-Asparaginase.

“Another advantage is that fungi are eukaryotic just like human cells, which makes it easily usable and long lasting on humans,” said Dr Kumar.

All organisms, except for bacteria and archaea, are eukaryotic, meaning they have a nucleus enclosed within membranes.

present, the anti-cancer drug costs around Rs 2,000 for a vial of 10,000 units, and the monthly cost of treatment ranges between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000.


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