With this new technology, hospitals and pharmacies could make vaccines and medicines onsite
Most modern biopharmaceutical medicines are produced by workhorse cells—typically bacterial but sometimes mammalian. The cells receive the synthesizing instructions on a snippet of a genetic code, which they incorporate into their DNA. The cellular machinery—ribosomes, RNAs, polymerases, and other compounds—read and use these instructions to build the medicinal molecules, which are harvested and administered to patients.
Although a staple of modern pharma, this process is complex and expensive. One must first insert the DNA instructions into the cells, which they may or may not uptake. One then must grow the cells, keeping them alive and well, so that they produce the required therapeutics, which then must be isolated and purified. To make this at scale requires massive bioreactors and big factories from where the drugs are distributed—and may take a while to arrive where they’re needed. “The pandemic showed us that this method is slow and cumbersome,” says Govind Rao, professor of biochemical engineering who directs the Center for Advanced Sensor Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). “We need better methods that can work faster and can work locally where an outbreak is happening.”
Rao and his team of collaborators, which spans multiple research institutions, believe they have a better approach that may change medicine-making worldwide. They suggest forgoing the concept of using living cells as medicine-producers. Instead, they propose breaking the cells and using the remaining cellular gears for assembling the therapeutic compounds. Instead of inserting the DNA into living cells, the team burst them open, and removed their DNA altogether. Yet, the residual molecular machinery of ribosomes, polymerases and other cogwheels still functioned the way it would in a cell. “Now if you drop your DNA drug-making instructions into that soup, this machinery starts making what you need,” Rao explains. “And because you're no longer worrying about living cells, it becomes much simpler and more efficient.” The collaborators detail their cell-free protein synthesis or CFPS method in their recent paper published in preprint BioAxiv.
While CFPS does not use living cells, it still needs the basic building blocks to assemble proteins from—such as amino acids, nucleotides and certain types of enzymes. These are regularly added into this “soup” to keep the molecular factory chugging. “We just mix everything in as a batch and we let it integrate,” says James Robert Swartz, professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at Stanford University and co-author of the paper. “And we make sure that we provide enough oxygen.” Rao likens the process to making milk from milk powder.
For a variety of reasons—from the field’s general inertia to regulatory approval hurdles—the method hasn’t become mainstream. The pandemic rekindled interest in medicines that can be made quickly and easily, so it drew more attention to the technology.
The idea of a cell-free protein synthesis is older than one might think. Swartz first experimented with it around 1997, when he was a chemical engineer at Genentech. While working on engineering bacteria to make pharmaceuticals, he discovered that there was a limit to what E. coli cells, the workhorse darling of pharma, could do. For example, it couldn’t grow and properly fold some complex proteins. “We tried many genetic engineering approaches, many fermentation, development, and environmental control approaches,” Swartz recalls—to no avail.
“The organism had its own agenda,” he quips. “And because everything was happening within the organism, we just couldn't really change those conditions very easily. Some of them we couldn’t change at all—we didn’t have control.”
It was out of frustration with the defiant bacteria that a new idea took hold. Could the cells be opened instead, so that the protein-forming reactions could be influenced more easily? “Obviously, we’d lose the ability for them to reproduce,” Swartz says. But that also meant that they no longer needed to keep the cells alive and could focus on making the specific reactions happen. “We could take the catalysts, the enzymes, and the more complex catalysts and activate them, make them work together, much as they would in a living cell, but the way we wanted.”
In 1998, Swartz joined Stanford, and began perfecting the biochemistry of the cell-free method, identifying the reactions he wanted to foster and stopping those he didn’t want. He managed to make the idea work, but for a variety of reasons—from the field’s general inertia to regulatory approval hurdles—the method hasn’t become mainstream. The pandemic rekindled interest in medicines that can be made quickly and easily, so it drew more attention to the technology. For their BioArxiv paper, the team tested the method by growing a specific antiviral protein called griffithsin.
First identified by Barry O’Keefe at National Cancer Institute over a decade ago, griffithsin is an antiviral known to interfere with many viruses’ ability to enter cells—including HIV, SARS, SARS-CoV-2, MERS and others. Originally isolated from the red algae Griffithsia, it works differently from antibodies and antibody cocktails.
Most antiviral medicines tend to target the specific receptors that viruses use to gain entry to the cells they infect. For example, SARS-CoV-2 uses the infamous spike protein to latch onto the ACE2 receptor of mammalian cells. The antibodies or other antiviral molecules stick to the spike protein, shutting off its ability to cling onto the ACE2 receptors. Unfortunately, the spike proteins mutate very often, so the medicines lose their potency. On the contrary, griffithsin has the ability to cling to the different parts of viral shells called capsids—namely to the molecules of mannose, a type of sugar. That extra stuff, glued all around the capsid like dead weight, makes it impossible for the virus to squeeze into the cell.
“Every time we have a vaccine or an antibody against a specific SARS-CoV-2 strain, that strain then mutates and so you lose efficacy,” Rao explains. “But griffithsin molecules glom onto the viral capsid, so the capsid essentially becomes a sticky mess and can’t enter the cell.” Mannose molecules also don’t mutate as easily as viruses’ receptors, so griffithsin-based antivirals do not have to be constantly updated. And because mannose molecules are found on many viruses’ capsids, it makes griffithsin “a universal neutralizer,” Rao explains.
“When griffithsin was discovered, we recognized that it held a lot of promise as a potential antiviral agent,” O’Keefe says. In 2010, he published a paper about griffithsin efficacy in neutralizing viruses of the corona family—after the first SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, the scientific community was interested in such antivirals. Yet, griffithsin is still not available as an off-the-shelf product. So during the Covid pandemic, the team experimented with synthesizing griffithsin using the cell-free production method. They were able to generate potent griffithsin in less than 24 hours without having to grow living cells.
The antiviral protein isn't the only type of medicine that can be made cell-free. The proteins needed for vaccine production could also be made the same way. “Such portable, on-demand drug manufacturing platforms can produce antiviral proteins within hours, making them ideal for combating future pandemics,” Rao says. “We would be able to stop the pandemic before it spreads.”
Top: Describes the process used in the study. Bottom: Describes how the new medicines and vaccines could be made at the site of a future viral outbreak.
Image courtesy of Rao and team, sourced from An approach to rapid distributed manufacturing of broad spectrumanti-viral griffithsin using cell-free systems to mitigate pandemics.
Rao’s idea is to perfect the technology to the point that any hospital or pharmacy can load up the media containing molecular factories, mix up the required amino acids, nucleotides and enzymes, and harvest the meds within hours. That will allow making medicines onsite and on demand. “That would be a self-contained production unit, so that you could just ship the production wherever the pandemic is breaking out,” says Swartz.
These units and the meds they produce, will, of course, have to undergo rigorous testing. “The biggest hurdles will be validating these against conventional technology,” Rao says. The biotech industry is risk-averse and prefers the familiar methods. But if this approach works, it may go beyond emergency situations and revolutionize the medicine-making paradigm even outside hospitals and pharmacies. Rao hopes that someday the method might become so mainstream that people may be able to buy and operate such reactors at home. “You can imagine a diabetic patient making insulin that way, or some other drugs,” Rao says. It would work not unlike making baby formula from the mere white powder. Just add water—and some oxygen, too.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”