The chemotherapy drug that's made with brewer's yeast
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Scientists have managed to mass produce a chemotherapy drug widely deployed against cancer — with yeast used by brewers to make beer.

Vinblastine, first developed in the 1950s, is one of the world’s most commonly used chemotherapy drugs. But it can only be made using the Madagascar periwinkle, a plant native to the island that produces white, pink or purple flowers.

More than half a century ago, researchers discovered the plant contained two chemicals that could halt the growth of cancer cells by stopping them dividing.

The two chemicals are vindoline and catharanthine, and the discovery led to the development of vinblastine by scientists in Canada a few years later.

Today, it is used across the NHS to treat everything from bladder and testicular cancer to breast and kidney tumours.

Scientists have managed to mass produce a chemotherapy drug widely deployed against cancer — with yeast used by brewers to make beer

It’s given intravenously, usually via a vein in the arm, sometimes alongside other cancer drugs, depending on the patient’s treatment. Despite scientific advances, researchers have been unable to find an easy and quick way to mass produce the drug.

It takes at least 500 kg of dried Madagascar periwinkle stem and leaves to make just 1 g of vinblastine, which means the plant has to be cultured in the wild on a massive scale. The growing and drying processes can take months, and any decline in production — for example, due to the weather — can disrupt supply.

Between 2019 and 2021, there was a global shortage of the drug due to production problems, which resulted in delayed treatment for many patients with cancers that were non-responsive to other types of chemotherapy.

Also, such is the complexity of the naturally occurring plant chemical involved, that scientists have been unable to develop an engineered version that would get around the problem of relying on annual plant production.

The latest breakthrough, by a team of scientists at the Technical University of Denmark, could be a solution.

They took ordinary yeast — the kind used to make beer or bread — and genetically tinkered with it to grow and produce the plant chemicals that make vinblastine.

Yeast is an ideal alternative to growing periwinkle plants because, not only is it cheap, its genetic material can be easily manipulated and it grows quickly.

But to come up with a form of the yeast that would produce the molecules they needed, the team had to delete dozens of its genes and add more from other plants.

The results, published in October in the journal Nature, showed the Danish team succeeded in using the yeast as a mini factory to successfully produce the chemicals needed to make vinblastine in a fraction of the time — less than a week — than it takes to grow the plants, and potentially at a greater volume, too.

Charles Evans, who is research information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Plants are a rich source of anti-cancer drugs, but extracting them can be an expensive process.

‘The researchers have successfully managed to recreate nearly all the complex chemical steps required to make vinblastine in yeast.

‘Further research is needed, but this is a promising step towards finding cheaper ways to produce cancer drugs, enabling more patients to benefit from them.’

Have a guilt-free advent

Our pick of the healthier alternatives to sugary calendars.. 

HOTEL CHOCOLAT

£13, hotelchocolat.com

Behind each door is a festive figure made of 70 per cent dark chocolate — rich in antioxidants that protect cells from damage.

BIRD & BLEND MATCHA

£52, birdandblendtea.com

This includes 24 tins of matcha green tea, which contains EGCG, a compound with anti-inflammatory properties. Flavours include gingernut, toffee apple and spearmint.

ARRAN

£70, arran.com

Filled with pampering products for body, hair and home, including shampoo and shower gel. All made in Scotland.

LAKRIDS LIQUORICE

£48, souschef.co.uk

Each window has a piece of flavoured liquorice, which helps to make red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body.

T2 SIP THE FUTURE

£22, t2tea.com

Open a door each day to find a new tea blend, such as green rose and turmeric ginger ninja.

WATERDROP

From £19.90, waterdrop.com

Waterdrops are dissolvable cubes to add to water. Each one contains vitamins and no added sugar. There’s a different flavour behind each door.

PIP & NUT

£15, ocado.com

Find Pip & Nut’s dark chocolate peanut and almond butter cups behind each of the 24 doors.

ARTISAN COFFEE

£24.99, artisancoffeeco.com

Health benefits of coffee include antioxidants, which protect cells. There’s a different blend of ground coffee every day.

ABSOLUTE BLACK

£8.39, montezumas.co.uk

If you love dark chocolate, this is filled with 100 per cent cocoa pieces, with all the beneficial compounds such as flavanols — one in particular, called epicatechin, is thought to help keep blood vessel walls elastic.

POPCORN SHED

£25, popcornshed.com

For a treat that’s gluten free and vegan, this has a bag of gourmet popcorn each day. Flavours include gingerbread, cherry pie and chocolate orange.

PLAYIN CHOC

£49.95, playinchoc.com

Behind each door is a little toy and chocolate that’s free from dairy, nuts, gluten and soy.

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