Holding the Key to Affordable Biotherapeutics

Author: Brandi Klingerman


Notre Dame researcher explores the potential of producing mammalian-like proteins with silkworm moths

Mac FraserProfessor Malcolm Fraser Jr.

The availability of medicines in many low- and middle-income countries is undermined by poor medicine supply, insufficient health facilities, and the high cost of medicine, according to the World Health Organization. This includes the production or financial capability for establishing biotherapeutic production processes to treat a variety of common illnesses and diseases. However, what if these countries could utilize the millennia-old, household practice of farming silk from silkworm moth caterpillars to produce affordable, in-demand biology-based therapeutics?

Malcolm Fraser Jr., the University of Notre Dame’s Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, C.S.C., Professor of Biological Sciences and Eck Institute for Global Health affiliated faculty member, is conducting research that utilizes the silkworm caterpillar’s silk gland to conduct mammalian-like protein production with the end goal of producing cost-effective biotherapeutic products, or therapeutic materials created utilizing recombinant DNA technology, that can be used to treat life-threatening and chronic diseases.

“There are roadblocks to using insects in general as a protein production platform because they don’t produce proteins like mammals do,” said Fraser. “However, our recent research shows that we are able to engineer the silkworm’s silk gland to utilize mammalian-like glycosylation, without disrupting its other protein processes.” 

Glycosylation is the enzyme process where sugars are added to proteins, which grossly varies from insect to mammal, and has a major impact in all mammalian protein production. Understanding this, Fraser worked to make glycosylation modifications exclusively in the silk gland, allowing the rest of the silkworm to maintain its other healthy functions. 

Creating mammalian-like proteins is an essential step in creating a biotherapeutic protein, such as an antibody that is used to identify and neutralize killer cells. However, before creating a biotherapeutic, the current research challenge is finding a way to easily extract the protein without destroying it. 

“When silkworms spin their silk, they actually create a type of liquid compound made of proteins that later dry into a thread. On top of that thread is the sericin layer, a sticky substance where a different protein is made,” said Fraser. “Instead of having the mammalian-like proteins produced within the silk, we want it produced within the sericin layer so it lays on top and can be more easily removed.”

Fraser’s latest study about the glycoengineering of the silk gland within the silkworm was published in ScienceDirect and can be read here. This week, July 23 through the 31, Notre Dame Research is recognizing National Moth Week (NMW). NMW which aims to celebrate the beauty, habitats, and life cycles of moths. To learn more about Moth Week, please click here


Brandi Klingerman / Research Communications Specialist

Notre Dame Research / University of Notre Dame

bklinger@nd.edu / 574.631.8183

research.nd.edu / @UNDResearch

About Notre Dame Research:

The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see research.nd.edu or @UNDResearch.