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Rensselaer Alumni Magazine Spring 2006
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At Rensselaer

Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering

Synthetic Heparin

Synthetic Heparin
Researchers at Rensselaer and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered an alternative way to produce heparin, a drug commonly used to stop or prevent blood from clotting. The findings could enable the current supply of the drug — now extracted from animal organ tissue — to be replaced or supplemented by the synthetic version. The new process also can be applied as a tool for drug discovery, according to the researchers.

Heparin is a complex carbohydrate used to stop or prevent blood from clotting during medical procedures and treatments such as kidney dialysis, heart bypass surgery, stent implantation, and indwelling catheters, among others. The annual worldwide sales of heparin are estimated at $3 billion.

“We have synthetically prepared heparin in quantities large enough for use in human medical treatments by engineering recently discovered heparin biosynthetic enzymes,” says Robert Linhardt, the Ann and John H. Broadbent Jr. ’59 Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering. “These discoveries will enable us to effectively replace a variable raw material with a synthetic material and have the same therapeutic result.”

Researchers at MIT first prepared a synthetic heparin, but, in amounts of less than 1 microgram, it was insufficient to treat humans, says Linhardt. One human dose of heparin is approximately 100 milligrams.

Rensselaer and UNC-Chapel Hill researchers successfully synthesized hundreds of milligrams of heparin by developing a large-scale process involving engineered enzymes and co-factor recycling. The new, scalable process can be applied to synthesize other heparin-based structures that regulate cell growth and may have applications in wound healing or cancer treatment.

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