Research and pharmaceuticals: EU ‘pharming’ solutions to major diseases

A team of European researchers plans to perfect techniques for producing antibodies and vaccines, obtained from plants, to prevent and treat major human diseases, such as AIDS, rabies and TB. The idea is to use genetically modified (GM) crops eventually to produce plant-based pharmaceuticals. Pharma-Planta is a consortium of eleven European countries and South Africa which, thanks to €12 million in EU funding, plans to produce vaccines and other treatments for major diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, rabies and tuberculosis. The project, led by the Fraunhofer Institute for molecular biology and ecology in Aachen (Germany), with scientific co-ordination by St George’s Hospital Medical School in London (UK), hopes to start clinical trials by the end of the funding period in 2009.

“The development of new drugs derived from plants, made possible thanks to recent advances in plant genetics, can benefit from cross-disciplinary collaboration at European level” commented Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin about this EU project. “The consortium of 39 research teams from across Europe and South Africa will combine expertise across disciplines, such as immunology and plant sciences, to offer real promise in this complex high-technology area.”

“Pharming”

Plant-based pharmaceutical production, or ‘pharming’, offers several advantages over traditional approaches. The current methods used to generate these types of treatments involve culturing cells or microorganisms, such as bacteria which are labour intensive, expensive and often only produce relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals. But plants are inexpensive to grow and if “engineered” to contain a gene for a pharmaceutical product, they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost.

First concrete applications

The first product that might come out of the EU integrated project, possibly grown in maize, is likely to be an antibody that neutralises the AIDS virus. This could be incorporated for example, in a simple-to-apply microbicidal cream and used for blocking HIV transmission. Next would probably be a monoclonal antibody against rabies – still a major killer in the developing world and responsible for up to 70,000 deaths a year – which could be used after contracting the virus.

Checks and balances

The production of pharmaceuticals in GM plants would be subject to control by multiple regulatory agencies, including those governing the use of genetically modified organisms and those governing the production of drugs. Part of Pharma-Planta’s remit will also be to identify secure methods and places for production.

Although the consortium has yet to decide which plants to use, likely candidates include maize, tobacco and tomatoes. Plants possessing the desired proteins for producing so-called ‘immunotherapeutic bio-molecules’ – which can be found in high enough quantities in the seeds and harvested easily – will be given preference.

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Fabio Fabbi European Union

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