CELLS SELL: Tech chemical engineers work toward cancer cure

May 12, 2010

by Taylor Stephens

This is the last in a three-part series about human cell and genome testing versus the marketability of alternative cells. Because Tech has a strong engineering focus, it can become a focal point for different types of genetic and cellular testing.

Henrietta Lacks’ immortal Hela cells have paved the way for human gene and cell testing, but new technology has revealed alternatives to make up for the long, arduous debate on human testing.

Tech’s senior chemical engineering students are finding ways to use Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells to accomplish what, thus far, has only been accomplished from human genome and cell testing.

Josh Hawthorne and Stephen Brown, senior chemical engineering majors, along with 20 other senior chemical engineering majors, are using CHOs to develop a monoclonal antibody to fight the growth and development of a number of diseases.

“Our project is to design a facility that will take CHOs and produce an antibody in them that can be used to treat or slow the growth of colorectal cancer and gastrointestinal tumors,” Hawthorne said. “The monoclonal antibody Stephen and I are trying to create is called Avastin.”

Hawthorne deals with the growing and development of the cells for production and Brown deals with the purification process by trying to isolate the antibody cells for production or distribution.

Hawthorne said a monoclonal antibody is a treated group of cells that are a specific alleviation for some foreign object in the body.

He said Avastin is the first commercially available antibody that stops the growth of tumors by blocking the formation of new blood vessels in a tumor. Avastin does this by preventing a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that allows new blood vessels to form.

“The process of injecting the antibody directly into the tumor or cancer is labeled as a ‘magic bullet’ process,” Hawthorne said. “The antibody can be directly injected into the tumor or cancer rather than having to allow it to travel through the body to the infection like the antifungal medicine Lamisil.”

Hawthorne said CHOs are the easiest cell to use for the creation of the monoclonal antibody because they are easy to care for, easy to obtain and they behave similarly to human cells. In other words, they are a good replacement for HeLa cells (see first installment of “Cells Sell,” April 29, 2010). However, the process is not exactly simple or cheap.

“Our pro- cess exposes CHOs to hazardous genes or cells, and they slowly start producing a monoclonal antibody, which contains the resistance to the tumor,” Hawthorne said.

Brown said once the CHOs have been exposed to the hazardous genes or cells they are stripped of excess contaminants, which are solid particulates that are created during the initial purification of the antibodies, by rotating in a centrifuge. Then the antibodies are further purified, packaged and shipped for use.

“Every treatment and antibody we are working with are all relatively new, and there isn’t really a whole lot of research about it,” Brown said. “We haven’t even perfected the work with CHOs and how they affect other pharmaceutical antibodies or how it will affect people in the long run. This procedure shows great promise at first, but it still needs to be polished to a point where it can be used massively.”

Brown said besides polishing just the procedure, there are a lot of insurance and medical liabilities that have to be considered before the “magic bullet” procedure can be used medicinally in a wide area.

“Take alternative fuels for example. Sure they can be made, but right now can they be made cheaply and successfully?” Brown said. “You have to worry about whether or not [the treatment] is going to be cheaper than other things that could shrink or cure the cancer or tumor.”

However, Brown and Hawthorne both said while there is no 100 percent chance that this exact treatment will someday eradicate cancer, there is a chance that this new technology will be useful in the future for another product.

“We’ve come this far, and the research is only getting better,” Hawthorne said. “Look at polio and cancer. Years ago, there was virtually no one that could have afforded the treatments, and now polio is scarce and most early stages of cancer and tumors are easily treated and removed.”

Human testing has gone from the unethical and illegal removal of cells from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks to the complete ownership of a specific cell within every person by Myriad Genetics. Though it may not be cost efficient or completely possible now, a new age is coming, which will eradicate the use of human testing in science, one cell at a time.