Farming Plants for Pharmaceuticals Still Promising

Despite challenging obstacles, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration views plant-made pharmaceuticals as a highly promising means of building and securing the world’s drug supply, said FDA Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo here this week.

Speaking at a special forum on the topic Tuesday, Crawford explained that the FDA is working closely with the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service to monitor and keep isolated plant-made pharmaceuticals crops from conventional food crops.

“We want to regulate [plant-made pharmaceuticals] in such a way that public health is not put in jeopardy, but we want to go about that in a way that won’t impede development because we think this is an industry that offers great promise,” said Crawford.

Plants have become a focus for production of pharmaceuticals because of their complex biology and similarity of their cellular structures to human cells.

The economics of producing such plants are also very attractive, costing potentially only 10 percent that of traditional biotech medicines, said Mike Phillips, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Corporation.

Research on growing plants for pharmaceuticals has focused primarily on alfalfa, corn, duck weed, rice, safflower and tobacco, according to the panel, with the plants offering the potential for offering treatments for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, to cystic fibrosis and spinal cord injuries, among many others. “The possibilities are endless,” said Phillips. “Of course, many will fail, but you keep looking for the one to take to market that makes all of the research and development worthwhile.”

Crawford added that the plant-made pharmaceuticals could offer needed relief as the FDA stretches itself to monitor manufacturing facilities around the world that provide food to this country. “As this industry develops, I think it will be a very useful adjunct to the security and integrity of the world drug supply,” said Crawford.

Concerns persist that pharmaceutical crops could be easily mistaken for conventional crops and mixed into the food supply, said Jeff Barach, vice president of special products for the National Food Processors Association. But limiting production to non-food crops would severely limit drug-making potential. “If companies were limited to tobacco or duck weed, the funding would evaporate and the promise for this would end overnight,” he said.

The Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo is the world’s largest annual food science and ingredient conference, delivering comprehensive, cutting-edge research and opinion from food science-, technology-, marketing- and business-leaders. Now in it’s 64th year, the IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo attracts up to 20,000 attendees and 1,000 exhibiting companies. The convention runs through Friday.

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