Will the future of big drug companies be in the greenhouse?
While plant-derived medicines have been used since the days of our earliest human ancestors, a new process called biopharming, is creating strains of plants that can create medical pharmaceutical compounds more readily than ever before. Now scientists are converting plants like Nicotiana benthamiana and Nicotiana tobaccum into manufacturing platforms for a wide range of targeted protein-based therapies to treat Ebola, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
PlantForm, a Guelph, Ontario-based company, is one of a few dozen biotech firms around the world developing these plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs). “We can make virtually any biological drug,” said Don Stewart, the PlantForm company’s president and CEO in an interview with Vice.
In order to get the plant to produce the desired cells, bioengineers introduce genetic control mechanisms into the plant that will cause it to express the particular antibody they want. This is done by infecting the plant with a specific kind of bacteria called agrobacterium that conveys the genetic material.
Much of the development incentive for biopharming comes down to cost. According to Stewart, the manufacturing cost for one dose of Herceptin, a drug used to treat breast cancer, is $1000, but using its proprietary tobacco-based vivoXPRESS system, PlantForm can produce that same drug for around $100 per dose.
In 2013, the global market for biologics was valued at $200 billion according to the biological research firm DCC. The market for Herceptin in particular is $6.8 billion, and PlantForm estimates that the market for biosimilar drugs—basically, copies of the original that do the same thing—is $4 or $5 billion. PlantForm predicts to have a plant-derived Herceptin on the market in 2018.