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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 16:34 GMT
'Shortcut' could slash drug costs
Hand with syringe
Proteins are isolated quickly with the new method
Scientists may have found a method of manufacturing costly drugs at much lower prices.

The research breakthrough, at Nottingham University, allows scientists to isolate and develop proteins - the ingredients of many drugs and vaccines - much more quickly and effectively.

One example, beta interferon, a protein-based drug used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), can currently cost about 10,000 a year per patient.

It is not available to all patients on the NHS because of the prohibitive cost.

With our breakthrough we are able to "short-circuit" the process and just have the desired protein purified and isolated almost automatically

Dr Tom Baldwin Nottingham University

Dr Tom Baldwin, director of the University of Nottingham's Institute of Infections and Immunities, said the new method would cut costs by making it easier to produce the beta interferon protein.

"We've got a system which we can use to purify any protein, which can then be used to keep the body healthy.

"If we were to make beta interferon with our process, it would be a lot cheaper as we wouldn't have the problem of isolating the cells and getting rid of the other proteins.

Pure protein

Beta interferon, used to slow the progression of MS, is only suitable for a small proportion of patients, and can have severe side-effects.

"Scientists are working all the time to isolate proteins, but it is a difficult process," Mr Baldwin said.

"With our breakthrough we are able to 'short-circuit' the process and just have the desired protein purified and isolated almost automatically," he said.

Interferon beta A
The research could lower beta interferon prices

Mr Baldwin explained that the researchers take the gene of the protein and put it into bacteria.

The bacteria then manufacture the protein - but, instead of it remaining inside the bacteria, it is naturally pushed out into the surrounding fluid.

This method makes it easier to isolate the protein in a concentrated form.

Mr Baldwin said the work is an example of the university using pure scientific research to for industrial and medical purposes.

Early stages

The research is still in its very early stages, and none of the product has been tested on patients, he said.

But the team has already targeted several proteins used to make high-cost vaccines that it wants to isolate with this process.

"If we could cut the cost of just one therapy, it would a big breakthrough," he said.

David Harrison, a spokesman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said: "This is clearly at very early stages, but anything that would bring down the price of beta interferon would be welcomed."

"Of course we need to careful that any product or process is properly tested and trialled, before we make any final judgement," he said.

Click here to go to Nottingham
See also:

11 Jul 00 | Health
MS drug 'cheaper than care'
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