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GM Plants To Grow Vaccines Against Killer Diseases


Genetically modified (GM) plants are to be used to grow vaccines for use in the worldwide fight against HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes and rabies thanks to a grant of 12 million euros from the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

‘Pharma-Planta’ draws on the expertise and experience of 39 scientists from 11 European countries and South Africa to address significant health problems affecting Europe and the developing world - although the primary aim is to provide medicines for poorer countries.

In the first international project of its kind, ‘Pharma-Planta’ will develop the concept from plant modification through to clinical trials and they expect to begin human trials of the drugs within four years.

“We are addressing the serious issue of global inequality of health”, says scientific coordinator, Professor Julian Ma from St George’s Hospital Medical School in London. “Although the major burden of 21st century disease is in the developing world we have to accept it as a global problem as these are the countries that do not have access to vaccines.

“We know we can use GM technology to force a plant’s molecular apparatus to produce a range of medically useful compounds. Already genetic modification of other organisms is being used to produce human insulin and a hepatitis B vaccine. However, plant derived materials used in humans have never been formally addressed within the EU. So, this is a ground-breaking project that aims to provide help for the millions of people that die each year throughout the world from vaccine preventable diseases.”

Because plants are inexpensive to grow they could be used to produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost - anywhere between 10 and 100 times lower than conventional production, which is often labour intensive, expensive and often produces relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals.

If the project is successful, the techniques would be licensed to developing countries. They would then be able to start up their own production to generate whatever amount they require at a cost that would not impact greatly on the countries economy.

Although the project has not finally decided which plants will be used, the likely candidates are tobacco or maize.

“The ‘Pharma-Planta’ project is an excellent example of how EU Framework Funding is being used to help research and development projects that will have a major impact on the everyday lives of people both in Europe and around the world”, says Claire Horton FP6UK’s National Contact Point for ’Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health. “This funding helps bring together experts from different countries to work together in the fight against diseases that can affect us all.

“The current Framework Programme (FP6) runs until 2006 and organisations wanting free information on how to access some of the 19 billion euros available should log on to or call central telephone support on 0870 600 6080.”

Dave Sanders | alfa
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