Blog – Bioprocessing Engineers and Plant-based Biotherapeutics – more, please!
Processing plant biomass to obtain high value products such as medicines relies on engineering processes that are mostly already in use. The challenge is that process unit operations well-known from the world of plant processing for food need to be combined with process unit operations used in the somewhat distant world of processing biotherapeutics. This challenge is more one of mindset than a practical one, and yet, for projects and companies wanting to develop plant-based biotherapeutics production processes, who need to hire excellent Bioprocess Engineers, it represents a very important challenge.
This is why at chart Biotech we were excited to read about this years’ recipient of the Allen G. Marr Prize for Dissertation Excellence, Dr. Matt Mc Nulty at UC Davies Chemical Engineering Department. (Read the article here.)
“A cutting-edge researcher in plant molecular farming (…), McNulty is the second chemical engineer to receive the honor.
His wide-ranging research, under the mentorship of Chemical Engineering Distinguished Professor Karen McDonald, led him to topics spanning plant-based manufacturing, virus-based nanomaterials, space systems bioengineering and techno-economic analysis.”
In fact, Professor Karen McDonald has also won the 2022 Daniel I.C. Wang Award from the American Chemical Society’s Division of Biochemical Technology (ACS BIOT) and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Society of Biological Engineering (AIChE/SBE), for her outstanding contributions to the field of chemical engineering.
Using plants to produce medicines can be relevant in space exploration, as the team at UC Davis Chem Eng. has been showing (see here for example). The plant systems can also be very relevant here on earth.
The current most used bioprocesses work well. They also have very high entry barriers (cost of building and validating a cell-based production facility runs into many 10s of millions of USD and takes several years before the facility can be used). These barriers add to the global inequity in access to medicines and these production systems are not well-adapted to a changing world.
It is clear, thus, that the future facilities for biotherapeutics production need to be very different from the current multi ‘000 Liter cell-based plants. Applying our efforts to developing competitive efficient and well-adapted production platforms and processes is important.
Excellent Bioprocessing engineers are an essential piece of the change, therefore Engineering Universities have an important role to play here.
Other than the need for purpose-educated plant-based Process Engineers, what have been the challenges in the development of plant-based medicines and biotherapeutics?
The EU-funded consortium “Pharma Factory” set to tackle some of these. It includes work packages addressing important themes such as communication (see their really nice “Technology” page here) and the current regulatory path for plant-made products for medical use.
“One of the unique features of the Pharma Factory project has been the stakeholder engagement workshops which have been carried out using co-design to discover the perceived benefits of PMF technologies, as well as the barriers to acceptance.”
The consortium posters outlining the Stakeholder roadmap and a glossary are useful resources here.
The role of the Universities in supporting the jobs of the future (Pharmer, anyone for it?) is also highlighted by the Pharma Factory consortium. Two public institutions dedicated to development of technical research and applications in industry are part of the team, hellas, no Engineering University. Something for a future consortium to explore!