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CAF1 Cell Culture Technology

Caf1 Cell Culture Technology

A new technique that uses a bacterial protein to improve cell culture technology and wound care could soon be available to license from us.

Research into a vaccine for the Yersinia pestis (plague) bacteria, led by Professor Jeremy Lakey at Newcastle University’s Institute for Cell and Molecular Bioscience has led to some potential applications for the bacteria’s protective protein.

The Caf1 protein protects the bacteria when it is inside the body by forming a slippery coat that prevents the body’s infection-fighting white blood cells holding on and killing it. The protein consists of very long strings of molecules reminiscent of polymers – the molecules used to make plastics. Jeremy explains: “When we looked at it under the microscope, it immediately gave us the impression that this was a new biomaterial that we could use.”

Growing cells

The most immediate application will be in the field of cell culture technology. The Caf1 protein can be developed to create the right environment for growing cells in laboratories. This is a preferred way to test drugs and other treatments without using animals.

While currently a lot of research is done on cells grown in vessels in the lab, cells grow better in a three-dimensional world built around them by particular proteins in the body called extra-cellular matrix proteins. By engineering Caf1 and introducing new sequences into its structure – effectively reversing its slippery nature to a more adhesive one – the protein provides a structure in which the cells can grow more efficiently.

The basis of a patent, already granted in the US and under consideration in several other countries, is that the ability to create an engineered, well defined and stable three-dimensional cell-growth environment using Caf1. This could allow other laboratories to replace less efficient materials that they are currently using.

The Caf1 team in their lab
Dr Helen Waller (left) and Dr Daniel Peters (right) from the Caf1 team .

Wound care

There are also potential medical applications that are in an earlier stage of research. The team is working with skin cells to help improve wound care, for example. They are designing different versions of Caf1 to promote the migration of skin cells in difficult-to-heal wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers.

Jeremy explains: “A lot of these ulcers never heal, so you want to encourage the cells creating healthy skin to make their way across the surface of the wound and form a seal. Using Caf1 would be a bit like laying cellular railway tracks across the wound to encourage cells to move along and form a natural barrier of skin.”

The advantage of Caf1 is that it is incredibly flexible in how it can be engineered. It’s a well-defined material, “because it is engineered, we know exactly what it is,” says Jeremy. Compared to other well-defined protein materials made by synthetic chemistry, Caf1 can be produced more cost-effectively, with the potential for better economies of scale because it is made in bacteria.

Structural model of the CAF-1 polymer with individual CAF-1 protein subunits shown in different colours. Image prepared using CCP4MG software package.