Three years ago, a UC San Diego team of biologists headed by Mayfield, who is also the director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, a research consortium seeking to develop transportation fuels from algae, published a landmark study demonstrating that many complex human therapeutic proteins, such as monoclonal antibodies and growth hormones, could be produced by the common algae Chlamydomonas. That got Gregory wondering if complex malarial transmission blocking vaccine candidates could also be produced by Chlamydomonas.  Two billion people live in malaria endemic regions, making the delivery of a malarial vaccine a costly and logistically difficult proposition, especially when that vaccine is expensive to produce. So the UC San Diego biologists set out to determine if this alga, an organism that can produce complex proteins very cheaply, could produce malaria proteins that would inhibit infections from malaria.

“It’s too costly to vaccinate two billion people using current technologies,” explained Mayfield. “Realistically, the only way a malaria vaccine will ever be used in the developing world is if it can be produced at a fraction of the cost of current vaccines.  Algae have this potential because you can grow algae any place on the planet in ponds or even in bathtubs.”

Collaborating with Joseph Vinetz, a professor of medicine at UC San Diego and a leading expert in tropical diseases who has been working on developing vaccines against malaria, the researchers showed in their earlier study, published in the open access journal PLoS ONE  last May that the proteins produced by the algae, when injected into laboratory mice, made antibodies that blocked malaria transmission from mosquitoes.

The next step was to see if they could immunize mice against malaria by simply feeding the genetically engineered algae. “We think getting oral vaccines in which you don’t have to purify the protein is the only way in which you can make medicines dramatically cheaper and make them available to the developing world,” says Mayfield. “The Holy Grail is to develop an orally delivered vaccine, and we predict that we may be able to do it in algae, and for about a penny a dose. Our algae-produced malarial vaccine works against malarial parasites in mice, but it needs to be injected into the bloodstream.”

Although an edible malarial vaccine is not yet a reality, he adds, “this study shows that you can make a pretty fancy protein using algae, deliver it to the gut and get IgA antibodies that recognize that protein. Now we know we have a system that can deliver a complex protein to the right place and develop an immune response to provide protection.”

Mayfield is also co-director of the Center for Food & Fuel for the 21st Century, a new research unit that has brought together researchers from across the campus to develop renewable ways of improving the nation’s food, fuel, pharmaceutical and other bio-based industries and is this week hosting a major symposium on the subject at the Institute of the Americas at UC San Diego.

Two other researchers in Mayfield’s laboratory, Aaron Topol and David Doerner, participated in the research study, which was supported by grants from the San Diego Foundation, the California Energy Commission (500-10-039) and the National Science Foundation (CBET-1160184).

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