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Headlines Published on 30 September 2004

Title EU ‘pharming’ solutions to major diseases

A team of European researchers plans to perfect techniques for producing antibodies and vaccines to prevent and treat major human diseases, such as AIDS, rabies and tuberculosis. The idea is to use genetically modified (GM) crops eventually to produce plant-based pharmaceuticals.  

Could plant pharmacology one day include more common crops like maize and tobacco? © Image: PhotoDisc
Could plant pharmacology one day include more common crops like maize and tobacco?
© Image: PhotoDisc
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 (TB). The project, led by the Fraunhofer Institute in Achen (DE), with scientific coordination by St George's Hospital Medical School in London (UK), hopes to start clinical trials by the end of the funding period in 2009.

According to Julian Ma of St George's, the priority for the research teams will be diseases affecting developing countries. “Infectious diseases are the leading cause of death in children and the second highest in adults,” he says. “These diseases primarily affect people in developing countries who do not have access to – and cannot afford – the medicines and vaccines on sale in developed countries.” The project aims to address this global inequality of health by boosting the supply of accessible treatments to neglected diseases, he stresses.

The first product that might come out of the EU integrated project 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 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, funded under the Sixth Framework Programme’s ‘Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health’ sub-theme. “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.”

The consortium is aware that public suspicion towards GM crops for food production is still quite high, but notes a different sentiment for medicinal products. According to Pharma-Planta’s biosafety coordinator, Philip Dale of the John Innes Centre in Norwich (UK), the British tend to show more support for GM plants used for medicinal purposes. This attitude was also observed by German and Italian researchers in their study of public perceptions of biotechnology.

Although the consortium has yet to decide which plants to use, 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. Citing cases in the USA, environmental groups have raised concern about possible gene transfer from pharma-crops to food-based crops. But the scientists say, in addition to the normal checks and balances, using non-food crops, such as tobacco or maize (see inPharma story), is also a possibility.

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, the consortium explains, will also be to identify secure methods and places for production.

According to Julian Ma, 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,” he explains. But plants are inexpensive to grow and “if we were to engineer them to contain a gene for a pharmaceutical product, they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost”.

Source:  EU, project and news sources

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Pharma-Planta Consortium
  • Press release (12 July 2004, Pharma-Planta)
  • Press release (Commission, 22 July 2004)
  • Fraunhofer Institute
  • EU funding for plant vaccines (BBC online, 12 July 2004)
  • Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health (FP6 priority on CORDIS)
  • Understanding public resentment towards biotech (Headlines, 8 July 2004)
  • EU backs crop biomanufacturing effort (inPharma, 15 July 2004)

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