Clemson prof gets $6M for research to lower price of drugs used to treat breast cancer, MS

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Sarah Harcum, professor of bioengineering, works in her lab at Clemson University. Photo Credit: Clemson University.

Clemson University professor Sarah Harcum has been awarded a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study ways to lower the cost of drugs for illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, breast cancer, severe anemia, and multiple sclerosis. 

Harcum and several other researchers plan to research better ways of engineering Chinese hamster ovary cells, which the drug industry uses to produce half of all biopharmaceuticals.

According to Harcum, a bioengineering professor, Chinese hamster ovary cells are highly adaptable, bear no human viruses, and are capable of high-level production. But the hamster cells have one flaw: Genetic drift, a series of mutations that ultimately hinders drug production for manufacturers and increases prices for patients. 

Genetic drift begins at cell development, according to Harcum.

A line of ovarian cells ideally develops with a uniform genetic composition, which is necessary for the efficient production of all biopharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, the composition drifts as cells reproduce, and they become less effective at creating drugs. 

As a result, production becomes more expensive as they require more monitoring, control, and analysis throughout the manufacturing processSome biopharmaceuticals under current production conditions can cost patients thousands of dollars per treatment, according to Harcum. 

Harcum said she became aware of genetic drift in hamster cells during her time as a staff fellow at the Federal Drug Administration in the 1990s. She’s since studied how to disable the underlying mechanism responsible for the genetic drift, using a set of hamster cells that were originally cultured in 1957.  

Now, using the grant, Harcum is teaming up with researchers from the University of Delaware, Tulane University, and Delaware State University to find a solution. Harcum said the study is expected to improve the manufacturing process for biopharmaceuticals, creating more affordable prices for patients. 

“We expect by the end of the study we will have identified some genes that cause the instability,” said Harcum. “With success, the Chinese hamster ovary cell line will stay more stable during the manufacturing. We hope to get that drift to be reduced; that’s the ultimate goal.” 

Harcum plans to use the grant money to install an industry-grade bioreactor in her lab at the Biosystems Research Complex on the main Clemson University campus.

As part of the project, Harcum and her colleagues plan to use part of the grant money to recruit female and minority research assistants to promote diversity. They also plan to recruit three-tenure track faculty members to promote the field of bioengineering, which has faced a shortage of master’s and doctoral-level researchers in recent years.

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