Combating chemotherapy drug shortages with plant engineering — with Spark Fund awardee Professor Carolyn Lee-Parsons

Apr 6, 2023 | Events, Recognition

Carolyn Lee-Parsons

Northeastern Professor Carolyn Lee-Parsons and her team are studying how plants regulate compound production with the goal of developing a way to enhance production and therefore fulfill the need for
these critical plant-derived pharmaceuticals. This work has earned them selection as one of the Fall 2022 Spark Fund awardees.

When you think about medicines derived from plants, your mind may go to homeopathies and household remedies. However, many plants have been used for pharmaceutical purposes for centuries, and new medicines are still being discovered from plants today.

For example, many common anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-infective, and anti-microbial drugs are derived from plants. Aspirin was originally derived from willow tree bark; paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug for breast, lung and ovarian cancers, is derived from Pacific yew tree bark; and vincristine, a critical chemotherapy drug for many childhood cancers, is derived from the Madagascar periwinkle.

While plants can be amazing natural chemists, they often only produce medicinal compounds in limited concentrations. This can be a problem that leads to high drug costs and severe drug shortages, especially when there is no substitute. Vincristine, in particular, has become increasingly scarce in recent years due to manufacturing shortages and several drug companies discontinuing it. These manufacturing delays and shortages cause serious treatment disruptions for patients, and there is no currently available substitute for childhood cancer patients, which are often very difficult diseases to treat in the first place.

Using bioengineering to increase plant compound production

“I have always been interested in plants and their use as medicines,” says Lee-Parsons. “This curiosity was first seeded and nurtured from my experience of growing up near farms and from my grandmother’s use of herbal medicine. Then, I became interested in plant cell culture as a graduate student because plant cell cultures were ‘the new frontier’ as a production platform. Now, I am motivated to use this platform to tackle today’s urgent drug shortages.”

For approximately the past five years, Lee-Parsons and her team of post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduate students have been studying the production of the chemotherapeutic compounds known as terpenoid indole alkaloids (TIAs) from the medicinal plant, Catharanthus roseus or Madagascar periwinkle plant.

In particular, they are focused on understanding the production of vinblastine and vincristine. Their goal is to engineer a way to economically and repeatably get the plants to overproduce these compounds so that they produce sufficient quantities to meet the drug’s demand.

To realize that vision, their research seeks to clarify the molecular mechanisms underlying plant metabolism regulation and to apply bioengineering and bioprocess strategies to them. As part of this work, they identify bioengineering targets (e.g., transcription factors) and develop biological tools (such as rapid screening assays, and genetic engineering methods and tools such as RNA silencing and CRISPR editing) to engineer increased production of these compounds in the plants.

Commercialization with the Spark Fund

The team hopes that their research will enable the engineering of a plant “prototype” that produces increased levels of the chemotherapeutic drugs and help address the shortage of these important drugs for patients and their families. The Spark Fund will enable the team to further work towards this goal by funding the project, securing a full patent, and helping the team take the research out of the lab and apply it to real-world problems in society.

“Going through the Spark Fund application process opened my eyes to a different perspective and helped me consider the questions that needed to be considered in order to translate our research into industry and help solve this lack of critical drugs derived from plants,” says Lee-Parsons.

Learn more about Professor Lee-Parson’s research and the other Spark Fund Award grantees here.

Graphic of Chemistry elements