“Farmaceuticals” and “Plantibodies” – Using Genetically-Engineered Plants to Produce Drugs and Vaccines

Placebo New Meanings For “Medicinal Plants”?

Plants have been used by humans for thousands of years as a source of medicines, some effective, many not so much (except perhaps as placebos).

The first botanists were likely shaman herbalists who possessed the knowledge of which plants would kill and which plants would cure.

Contemporary shamans can now perhaps be found at the local food co-op or health food store in the herbal supplements section. Some may even be found ensconced in universities or drug companies. These PhD botanists, microbiologists, chemists and pharmacists are combing the planet, from oceans to jungles, in search of exotic plants that may contain compounds that cure cancer, AIDS, or you name it.

Such bioprospecting for plant-derived medicines is an active field and is a risky, but potentially lucrative, endeavor.

But instead of searching for natural plant compounds with medicinal properties, some scientists are using well-known crops, even tobacco plants, as solar-powered bioreactors to synthesize medicines and vaccines using plant genetic engineering.

PharmingPlant Molecular Pharming

With the blossoming of plant genetic engineering in the 1980s came a new way of looking at plants as potential sources of medicines.

Would it be possible, for instance, to use genetically-engineered (GE) plants to bio-synthesize drugs such as insulin and human growth hormone on a commercial scale?

Could we also use such plants as sources of vaccines? For example, by eating a couple of specially-GE bananas, could your child be effectively vaccinated against whooping cough or polio?

Much was made of so-called molecular pharming in the 1990s, but for various technical and regulatory reasons, the actual impact of plant biotechnology on the pharmaceutical industry has, to date, fallen way short of most of the predictions.

Recent approval by the FDA of a drug produced in plant cells may, however, herald a renaissance in plant molecular pharming.

“Drug-Making Plant Blooms”

As reported in the May 10, 2012 issue of Nature, the first biological drug for human use that is manufactured inside modified plant cells was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Professor Charles Arntzen, a plant biotechnologist at Arizona State University in Tempe and one of the early proponents of edible plant vaccines, says that this approval “…sends a clear and positive signal to investors and companies that plant-manufactured drugs are worth pursuing.”

Farmaceutical: “A medically valuable compound produced from modified agricultural crops or animals (usually through biotechnology).”

Plantibody: “A plantibody (a portmanteau derived from Plant and antibody) is an antibody produced by genetically modified crops. Antibodies are part of animal immune systems, and are produced in plants by transforming them with antibody genes from animals.”

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