For over 10 years, biological chemist Samuel Danishefsky has researched the possibility of synthesizing erythropoietin (EPO), the protein hormone necessary for producing red blood cells. This hormone is key in creating red blood cells from scratch. Now, Danishefsky and his team at Sloane Kettering Institute for Cancer Research have done just that: they created a version of EPO in their lab from scratch.
EPO, a protein that comes with an attached sugar, is naturally produced in the body by the kidneys. It is an essential component for the body to produce red blood cells, stimulating the process in the bone marrow. Red blood cells are key in how much oxygen the blood can carry. EPO also helps the body create hemoglobin, which carries this oxygen through the blood. It is often used to treat conditions like anemia. Unfortunately, it is also often used as a performance enhancing drug.
Traditionally, living cells from plants and animals are used to make EPO via genetic modification. The EPO produced this way, however, is never a perfect match for what the body naturally produces, and varies from dose to dose. Danishefsky’s team looked for ways to synthesize EPO to make it better. The team strung together a chain of amino acids to make the protein and integrated large sugars into the process. Mice injected with this synthesized EPO soon began to produce more red blood cells.
With this technique, the EPO created is the same every time and is more in line with what the body naturally makes on its own. This synthesis may not yet be perfect, though. Other scientists believe that the process of synthesis itself created a final molecule that isn’t correctly folded. Regardless, this is still a scientific breakthrough that could result in a future where drugs can be created without living cells. Combine this with advances in synthetic blood and blood drives may become a thing of the past.