A Sapphire Energy Co-Founder Sees Solutions in Algae for Drugs as Well as Biofuels

12/2/09

The potential of algae as a clean energy source has been generating a lot of entrepreneurial excitement in San Diego. At last count, 10 local companies are busy working on technologies focused on transforming ordinary pond scum into “green crude” one day capable of powering aircraft, trucks, automobiles, and even utility plants—and easing the world’s energy problems. It is a bold vision—but one that may be selling algae short. That thought occurred to me after I had a chat with Stephen Mayfield, a leading expert on the genetics of algae who recently moved his lab from The Scripps Research Institute to UC San Diego.

Mayfield has been studying algae for about a quarter of a century—long before it became hot—and he is a co-founder of San Diego-based Sapphire Energy, the oil-from-algae startup backed by billionaire Bill Gates. He’s a big believer in biofuels, and just a few days before Thanksgiving, he was in Washington with other Sapphire representatives, lobbying the Department of Energy for support. But to Mayfield, algae have far more to offer than a potential energy solution. He sees them as a possible answer to an entirely separate problem: the high cost of biotechnology drugs.

First some background. Many biotechnology drugs are made in living organisms, such as bacteria, yeast, or mammalian cells. The genetic code for a therapeutic protein or antibody is inserted into the organisms, which uses the DNA as a blueprint for producing the designated complex molecule. It is impressive technology, although the organisms require plenty of care and feeding in big, expensive factories that take years to build and bring online. And there’s the rub. Companies must often decide whether to construct a drug factory before they are certain they have a product.

Miscalculations are costly. By the time Idec Pharmaceuticals of San Diego broke ground on a $380-million factory in nearby Oceanside, CA, in 2002, all three drugs it planned to manufacture there had hit setbacks in clinical trials. A search for new drugs to produce in the factory led to Idec’s merger with Biogen of Cambridge, MA, which decided to make the multiple sclerosis drug natalizumab (Tysabri) there.

The biotech community in San Diego is well-acquainted with the rest of the story. Not long after the factory was completed, Biogen Idec briefly withdrew natalizumab from the market because a handful of patients developed rare but life-threatening brain infections. The drug never became the blockbuster the company had hoped for, and the factory was sold to Genentech at a loss.

Failing to invest in manufacturing can be just as costly, as Seattle-based Immunex learned. A shortage of production capacity for its blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis drug is one reason why that company sold itself to Amgen.

Mayfield says algae are ideal vehicles in which to produce biotech drugs because they don’t need all the pampering other organisms require. They pull … Next Page »

Denise Gellene is a former Los Angeles Times science writer and regular contributor to Xconomy. You can reach her at dgellene@xconomy.com Follow @

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