MIT Chemists Design More Efficient Way to Produce Peptides

By Jonathan Katz, contributing editor

Mar 19, 2014

MIT chemists say they have developed a faster process to manufacture peptides that could speed the development of new drugs to treat various diseases, including cancer.

Peptides are small protein fragments that can be designed for very specific functions inside living cells. Insulin and the HIV drug Fuzeon are some of the earliest forms of peptide drugs. The market for peptide drugs is expected to reach $25 billion by 2018.

But a major bottleneck has prevented peptide drugs from reaching their full potential, the MIT researchers say. Peptide production takes several weeks, making it difficult to manufacture large quantities and to rapidly test their effectiveness.

Therapeutic peptides usually consist of a chain of 30 to 40 amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Many universities, including MIT, have facilities to manufacture these peptides, but the process usually takes two to six weeks, using machines developed about 20 years ago.

These machines require about an hour to perform the chemical reactions needed to add one amino acid to a chain. To speed up the process, the MIT team adapted the synthesis reactions so they can be done in a continuous flow system.

Using this approach, each amino acid addition takes only a few minutes, and an entire peptide can be assembled in little more than an hour, according to the MIT research team.

In future versions, “we think we’re going to be able to do each step in under 30 seconds,” says Bradley Pentelute, an assistant professor of chemistry and leader of the research team. “What that means is you’re really going to be able to do anything you want in short periods of time.”

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