Pioneering Microalgae as a Therapeutic Production Platform

Pioneering Microalgae as a Therapeutic Production Platform

May 19, 2015

Summary:  Researchers at the NC  Research Campus are some of the first recipients  of a University of North Carolina Research Opportunities Initiative grant. With the funding,  they are collaborating with scientists at other campuses  to research the use of microalgae as a new platform  to produce  therapeutics. 


“We want to put North Carolina on the map as a pioneer in mass production of biologics using microalgae and meet the challenge of stopping diseases,” stated TinChung Leung, PhD, assistant professor of biology with NC Central University (NCCU) Nutrition Research Program at the NC Research Campus (NCRC).


With a grant from the University of North Carolina System, NCRC scientists and collaborators are researching microalgae to produce biologic therapies.

As one of the first recipients of the University of North Carolina Research Opportunities Initiative (UNC ROI) award, Leung is doing just that through a collaborative research project entitled “Bioengineering microalgae for large-scale production of therapeutic antibodies against Ebola, West Nile Virus and rabies.”

He is working with a team of co-investigators that includes NCRC colleagues Xiaohe Yang MD, PhD, NCCU associate professor of biology, and Penelope Perkins-Veazie, PhD, professor in the department of horticulture with the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI). Also on the team are Jiahau Xie, PhD, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at NCCU’s main campus in Durham, NC, and Michael Miley, PhD, research assistant professor with the UNC Chapel Hill department of pharmacology and director of the UNC Antibody Core Facility.

The ROI initiative is funded by a recurring $3 million annual appropriation from the North Carolina General Assembly, representing the first legislative investment in the UNC system’s five-year strategic plan. Five other collaborative grant projects led by research teams from across the UNC system were awarded for the 2014-2015 grant cycle in six priority areas: advanced manufacturing; coastal and marine science; defense, military, and security; energy; pharmacoengineering; and data science.


Microalgae Advantages

Using microalgae as a platform has several advantages. They reproduce rapidly, making them easier to culture in large quantities, and, as a single-cell organism, antibody extraction and purification are simpler. Leung points to ZMapp, the experimental treatment for the Ebola virus, as an example. ZMapp is produced through agro-bacterium mediated gene transfer into tobacco leaves, stimulating the plant to produce antibodies, which then have to be extracted and purified. The process takes up to three months and requires as much as 6,000 pounds of tobacco biomass to produce approximately 12 doses. In comparison, microalgae have higher growth rates, reaching in a few days the same level of biomass that it takes tobacco plants to attain in a few weeks. In addition, the yield of recombinant protein may be eight to 10 times that of the tobacco plant per unit of biomass.

Leung’s team has $600,000 and three-years to complete the grant, but they are considering larger impacts.

“If it works for one antibody that means it can also work with different antibodies so we have the potential of producing therapeutic antibodies for many different diseases,” Leung said. “With the outlook of the biologics market, we can have the potential to pioneer the use of microalgae to produce therapeutic antibodies, proteins and vaccines.”

The global market for biologics, which are therapies made from living organisms instead of chemicals, reached $169 billion in 2012 and is expected to exceed $221 billion in 2017. In North Carolina, biologics are critical to the state’s drug development and contract research sectors that are part of the state’s $73 billion life sciences industry.

“This has the potential to be really groundbreaking,” commented Chris Brown, PhD, UNC General Administration vice president for research and graduate education. “This project fits into an ecosystem in North Carolina that already exists. The opportunities for this technology are quite broad.”

Learn more about the University of North Carolina Research Opportunities Initiative.

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