Campus News

Researchers develop sustainable way to manufacture drug precursors

UGA researchers have found a new way to manufacture an important molecule used to create anticoagulants, a class of drug commonly prescribed to treat or prevent abnormal blood clots. Those blood clots can lead to heart attack, stroke and deep vein thrombosis.

The molecule 4 hydroxycoumarin, or 4HC, currently is produced through chemical synthesis using petroleum-based products. The process can create harmful residues and, due to the rapid depletion of natural resources, may not suffice as a long-term manufacturing technique.

“This biological process we have developed uses no petroleum and it produces no harmful byproducts,” said Yuheng Lin, lead author of the paper describing the process in Nature Communications and doctoral candidate in the UGA College of Engineering. “The 4HC we can create in the lab is also perfectly suited to create anticoagulants like warfarin.”

The precise number of people who develop obstructed blood vessels, or thromboembolisms, is difficult to determine, but estimates range from 300,000 to 600,000 per year in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 60,000 and 100,000 of the patients who suffer from thromboembolisms die very soon afterward, and many more are left with significant disabilities as a result of the trauma.

Although warfarin was approved for use as a medication 60 years ago, it remains one of the most popular and effective methods of treating these dangerous blood clots.

“This is a very important class of drugs, and we hope our research will make its production easier and less expensive,” said Yajun Yan, principal investigator for the project and assistant professor in the College of Engineering. “Lower production costs will ultimately result in cheaper medications for patients.”

The technique uses a strain of E. coli, a harmless, widely studied version of the bacteria used by research scientists and biological engineers, to turn simple sugars into the more complex molecules required to manufacture the anticoagulants. While their current experiments are small in scale, the researchers believe it easily could be expanded to suit industrial needs.

“We also believe that our technique could be used to manufacture other pharmaceuticals and industrial products,” Lin said.

The researchers have used similar processes to produce salicylic acid, an important chemical used to produce aspirin and a variety of skin care products.

“UGA is currently seeking partners interested in licensing the technology and also partnering with professor Yan toward the development of industrial uses for the invention,” said Gennaro Gama, senior technology licensing manager at UGA. “We believe this technology is a promising new method to produce a variety of useful commodities.”