Breakthrough hope for host of new medicines

A METHOD of re-shaping complex biological molecules by “directing” evolution could lead to a host of new medicines, according to a US study.

The technique uses a virus that infects bacteria to accelerate the mutation rate of genes for therapeutic proteins.

Phage-assisted continuous evolution (Pace) is said to be 100 times faster than conventional ways of producing large “macromolecules” such as enzymes that can fight disease.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Research leader Professor David Liu, from Harvard University, said: “Most modern drugs are based on small organic molecules, but biological macromolecules may be better suited as pharmaceuticals in some cases. Our work provides a new solution to one of the key challenges in the use of macromolecules as research tools or human therapeutics: how to rapidly generate proteins or nucleic acids with desired properties.”

The scientists used “phage” viruses to transfer evolving genes between a series of E.coli bacteria.

At each step, the genes produce within the bacteria an altered version of the proteins they code for.

The virus has a life cycle of just 10 minutes. As a result, the researchers were able to achieve 60 rounds of protein evolution every 24 hours. The process would normally take years.