Sunday, June 12, 2011

Albumin to the Rescue?

My rocket scientist buddy Les Johnson had another of his Stammtisch discussions this evening, and the guest speaker, Dan Carter, provided an intriguing talk. Unfortunately, this is one of those times where my English literature education is going to fail me and I'm going to get some things wrong. That said, I'll try to communicate what I thought I heard and refer the reader to other links for their own edification.

Dr. Carter, Chief Scientist and consultant to a number of biotech companies, spoke on the unlikely topic of albumin. First, what the heck is it? I'd heard of it, but honestly never touched the stuff--at least in an academic sense--we've all touched it, in reality. Albumin is a common protein in the human body that helps us process nutrients and remove harmful substances. Akin to DNA, another complex protein, albumin is a common protein found in blood plasma and represented visually looks like a series of spirals (amino acids) wound around each other in approximately a heart-shaped configuration.

Discovered in the 1920s, it was first used clinically during World War II to expand blood volume in soldiers wounded in the battlefield. Since albumin is 50% of blood (by dry weight), it was found that if you could get wounded servicemen's blood pressure up, you could stabilize them and get them to a hospital using albumin rather than units of whole blood, which are harder to store. The chemical sequence of albumin was first mapped in 1950 and mapped atomically in 1989 thanks to x-ray crystallography experiments performed on the Space Shuttle. Zero gravity was used to produced "pure" albumin crystals, which were easier to map when bombarded with x-rays.

Commercial use of albumin has only increased since World War II, branching out into areas like antibody production, stem cell cultures, in vitro fertilization, cosmetics (more on that later), drug development, drug and medical device coatings, and cryopreservation of various cell cultures. One of Dr. Carter's companies, New Century Pharmaceuticals, has been using albumin to improve drug design and therapeutic approaches.

If I understand New Century's approach correctly--and here is where my poor science education is costing me--they are binding albumin, a substance naturally found in the human body, to existing drugs to help a patient more readily accept the drugs. This is especially important in things like the chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer because these substances are toxic and produce a lot of secondary toxicity effects just by ingesting them. The reason doctors administer chemo at all is that their therapeutic indices--the rate at which they kill cancer cells vs. healthy cells--is tens or hundreds of times greater. In theory, chemotherapy drugs binded to albumin produce dramatically reduced secondary toxicity. If I read the graphs of effectiveness correctly, New Century's Salus product (an albumin binder combined with an existing chemotherapy drug) produces what to me were astounding results--like a four- or fivefold effectiveness rate over the standard chemo alone. This included drugs that are used to treat childhood leukemia like topotecan, which is probably familiar to my little buddy Morgan.

So what's the catch? As you might guess, it's not FDA-approved yet. Clinical trials can cost $2-3 million in the U.S. trials can be peformed overseas--Carter was looking at Central or South America--but that doesn't mean the trials would be accepted here. As I understand it, a pharmaceutical company or a doctor could start working with this stuff now, but no one wants to stick their neck out (aren't government regulations and litigation neat?).

There are other uses for albumin, including what Carter called "cosmoceuticals," pharmaceutical-grade skin care products that would produce dramatic improvements over whatever the latest collagen/jojoba/fad ingredient is. The reason these things wouldn't be sold in the mass market is that they are expensive to produce. Artificial ("recombinant") albumin is not easy to come by, but Carter provided us with lip balm samples with the trade name Albagen.

All of this sounds very exciting and promising...but then so does a lot of stuff that comes out of the biotech world. The most exciting albumin-related product that I heard about this evening was the drug delivery system, Salus, but it sounds like this is one of those times where biotech might shift from the creepy to the practical to the revolutionary. Things to think about if you want to be an involved citizen scientist.

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