Researchers earn $1.4M Keck Foundation grant to study greenhouse production of fungal-derived medicines

August 16, 2022
Stock photo of rows of plants in a greenhouse

By Amanda Fuller

Researchers in the University of North Texas BioDiscovery Institute have secured a $1.4 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation — the first Keck grant in UNT history — to explore the potential to develop fungal-derived pharmaceuticals like penicillin in plant hosts for more accessible and environmentally sustainable medicine.

This first-of-its-kind study will establish a new concept for producing valuable fungal products and may ultimately lead to medicines that can be delivered in plant seeds, eliminating downstream processing.

“What we're thinking long-term is that if plants can store medicines in seeds, you eat the seeds, and the medicine is already contained. You don't have all these factories, you don't need any chemicals — it's just there and available,” says Elizabeth Skellam, lead researcher and assistant professor of chemistry in the UNT College of Science. “Fungi also produce a lot of antifungal agents to protect themselves or compete against other fungi. This is important in agriculture. You could have plants that secrete antifungal agents to protect themselves, rather than having to apply a chemical or another fungus to the plant.”

The project grew from a conversation between Skellam and Regents Professor of Biological Sciences Kent Chapman, director of the UNT BioDiscovery Institute.

“Dr. Chapman studies how plants synthesize fats and how they store them, whereas I work with fungus,” Skellam says. “Fungi make very small, very specialized molecules, such as penicillin, which can be used as important drugs.”

Because the amount of penicillin fungi naturally produce is very small, factory production has been the industry standard since the 1940s. The specialized facilities require a large amount of energy and equipment, resulting in high levels of chemical waste and irreversible environmental damage. Plants, on the other hand, produce pharmaceuticals via photosynthesis, requiring only sunlight, carbon dioxide, water and mineral nutrients — resources that are easily scalable.

Skellam and her team plan to reconstitute the fungal metabolic pathways for penicillin and another well-studied drug, the immunosuppressive agent mycophenolic acid, within a plant host in standard greenhouse conditions.

“Penicillin is one of the handful of fungal-derived drugs where we know exactly where every enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway is located,” Skellam says. “We start with something that we know, then try and replicate it.”

Rounding out Skellam’s interdisciplinary team is fellow BioDiscovery Institute member Ana Paula Alonso, an associate professor of biological sciences who studies plant biochemistry, and Michael Carroll, a professor of economics in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences who will evaluate the economic feasibility of this new manufacturing process.

The project is funded by a $1.4 million grant from the prestigious W. M. Keck Foundation, which was established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company. One of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations, the W. M. Keck Foundation supports outstanding science, engineering and medical research. The Foundation also supports undergraduate education and maintains a program within Southern California to support arts and culture, education, health and community service projects.

“If I hadn't been in the BioDiscovery Institute, Dr. Chapman and I might never have dreamed of ways our research could intersect,” Skellam sys. “It was through his colleagues that we heard of the Keck Foundation — that they like high-risk, high-reward research. They’re looking for scientific ideas that break barriers, that go against conventional wisdom and have an impact on humanity.”

The grant — and the project itself — wouldn’t be possible were it not for UNT’s culture of intellectual curiosity and interdisciplinary collaboration.

“That’s what I love about UNT— how helpful everybody is,” Skellam says. “People weren’t laughing at our ideas going, ‘This will never work!’ They were like, ‘Oh, why don’t you try this?’ You don’t know what a good idea will be until you try it. And when other people are excited too, that really helps.”