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Cell Factories - The Grand Finale

Researchers operating at the frontiers of modern biotechnology recently had an opportunity to present their work to their peers, members of the press and officials from the European Commission, when they gathered in Graz, Austria, to celebrate and mark the transition from the ...
Researchers operating at the frontiers of modern biotechnology recently had an opportunity to present their work to their peers, members of the press and officials from the European Commission, when they gathered in Graz, Austria, to celebrate and mark the transition from the EU's Fourth to Fifth RTD Framework Programmes and the launch of the 'Cell factory' Key Action.

The six projects profiled at the event were picked out for their potential impact on healthcare, food production and industrial processes and covered a range of applications including the development of oral vaccines, the production of industrial enzymes, their use to produce fine chemicals, or finding ways of reducing the use of chemicals in agriculture.

The six projects presented were as follows:

- Using enzymes to produce pure chemicals:
With this project, the scientists aim to avoid harmful side effects resulting from biological reactions to 'enantiomeric' forms of a compound.

- Lactic acid bacteria as oral vaccines:
An international team collaborated on this project to work on an innovative use for lactic acid bacteria. The concept is to use GRAS (generally recognised as safe by regulatory authorities) bacteria as vaccines. As lactic acid bacteria are safe, and indeed, many are normal inhabitants of the gut and other parts of the human body, they are ideal candidates for use as oral vaccine and drug delivery vehicles, says the research team.

- Extremophiles as cell factories:
The scientists working on this project believe that their research on extremophiles - micro-organisms that are able to live in extreme environments, such as intense heat or areas with very high salinity - will play an important role in the future development of biotechnology. This robustness is of great value for industry, say the scientists, as: 'the properties of these novel biocatalysts overcome the limits of biotechnological operative conditions either for traditional processes (or) for designing new processes for innovative products.' According to the researchers, the project has enabled them to identify new stable enzymes that offer novel, environmentally safe, cost effective applications in a wide variety of industrial fields such as the chemical, food, pharmaceutical, detergent, textile, and paper industries. Their work has also shed light on the fundamental mechanisms of protein stability giving the base to design applications-specific thermostable enzymes, they say.

- Stem cells to produce human tissue engineered organs:
This project is aimed at combating the shortfall in supply of blood from donors vital for transfusions and the treatment of cancer, AIDS and various genetic deficiencies. 'The project is not only investigating the technology of growing blood outside the body, but also works with Europe's national ethical committees to promote appropriate policies based on a clear understanding of the issues', say the researchers.

- Using fungi to fight fungal diseases in agriculture:
The scientists working on this project aim to develop biological alternatives to chemicals to control rampant fungal infections in agriculture by introducing rival fungi that would compete with and in some cases even attack and destroy the problem fungus. But before anti-fungal fungi can be released into the field, the technology for growing it and release techniques must be developed, say the researchers. 'In this project, the crop protection potential of numerous anti-fungal fungi has been determined, and particular attention was given to the development of large-scale processes for the production of fungal spores. In particular the fungus 'Coniothyrium minitans' has been found to be a promising tool for prevention of damage in crops by 'Sclerotina sclerotiorum' they reported.

- New methods of vaccine production:
In this project, the scientists looked at how empty viral particles that perfectly mimic original viral structures can be used in vaccinology. These virus-like particles (VLPs) are produced in insect cell factories and are known to induce a strong immune response and can be used safely as vaccines, say the researchers. But large-scale development of these vaccines has been hampered by the high costs and efforts associated with optimising the technology and getting regulatory approval. In this case, it was the researchers' aim to demonstrate the economic viability of industrial production of VLPs for use as vaccines. 'The ultimate goal is develop a production process that is recognised for EC registration and should make the commercialisation of these safe new vaccines possible', the researchers concluded.

Source: European Commission, Research Directorate-General

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