The drug – brystatin 1 – could be used to treat “some of the world’s nastiest diseases”, according to Stanford University researchers.
It comes from a feathery sea creature, called brown bryozoan, which is found around the US coastline.
The drug is very difficult to extract from the creature, and it takes a lot of the species to get only a small amount of drug.
About 14 tonnes of brown bryozoan gives scientists around 18 grams of drug.
“It’s basically three elephants going down to a salt shaker,” said Paul Wender, Principal Investigator working on the study.
Now, the scientists have managed to recreate the drug themselves, so they won’t have to find as much of the sea creature.
“Ordinarily, we’re in the business of making chemicals that are better than the natural products,” said Wender.
“But when we started to realise that clinical trials were not being carried out, because they didn’t have enough material, we decided, ‘That’s it, we’re going to roll up our sleeves and make bryostatin because it is now in demand’.”
The lab-made drug is made in a – comparably shorter – 29-step process.
It’s tens of thousands of times more efficient than extracting the drug from the sea creature.
The researchers have already made two grams of the bryostatin drug. Once production is scaled up, manufacturers could produce about 20 grams a year.
That would be enough to treat about 20,000 cancer patients, or 40,000 Alzheimer’s disease patients.
The drug could also be used to treat HIV and AIDS, the researchers said.
It came after research last month found bryostatin could help to boost cells that were infected with the virus.
“We have an opportunity to start in earnest a clinical conversation about eradicating HIV/AIDS,” said Wender.