Professor Anne Osbourn has been awarded the 2023 Novozymes Prize for her pioneering work in helping to produce important drugs in greater volumes and improving the natural defence systems of plants to benefit both people’s health and the sustainability of the planet.
Plants produce a wealth of useful natural products. These are often structurally complex, limited by difficulties in accessing source species and beyond the reach of chemical synthesis. The discovery - by Professor Anne Osbourn - that plant genes for specialised pathways are organised like beads on a string has fuelled the finding of novel plant compounds and pathways.
The Osbourn group has characterised an extensive set of genes and enzymes for biosynthesis of triterpenes. One pathway on which they are working is for an immunostimulant, QS-21, which is a key component of vaccines for shingles, malaria and COVID-19. It is also used in vaccines being developed for ovarian cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, tuberculosis, and HIV. QS-21 is currently extracted from the bark of a tree that grows in Chile (the soapbark tree).
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