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

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nutrients from water and get their energy from the sun, which makes them easy to grow. A factory that uses algae to produce biotechnology drugs would be significantly cheaper to build than a traditional facility, lowering the investment risk associated with manufacturing, Mayfield says. Production costs would be about 75 percent lower, savings that could translate into cheaper biotechnology drugs, some of which now cost patients tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Roughly five years ago, Mayfield co-founded a company called Rincon Pharmaceuticals to begin commercializing his research. But like many startups, he says, it pursued too many projects at once and was close to running out of money before Sapphire Energy acquired Rincon last year. The deal gave Sapphire some useful intellectual property and expertise, but Mayfield expects the biofuels company to eventually spin out Rincon, which continues its research in Mayfield’s lab.

Earlier this year, Mayfield reported in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering that he produced in algae an anti-anthrax antibody with all the characteristics of an antibody produced in mammalian cells. Currently underway are projects involving the development of a targeted cancer drug capable of delivering a toxic payload directly to a tumor, and a malaria vaccine – possibly an edible one. It takes years to develop and test a biotechnology drug, so it will be a while before an algae-produced drug is available. But Mayfield says that day is inevitable. Science—and economics—are on his side.

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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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