Blog – Why are we talking about plants to make medicines?
Global inequity in access to medicines and vaccines has been even more exposed by the COVID pandemic.
Some regions of the globe have none or very limited ability to manufacture medicines, having to entirely depend on imports (or donations) from other countries.
This is not good nor it is right. What can be done to make it more balanced?
Manufacturing of complex medicines utilizes chemistry and biology. Over the past 40 years, biotechnology-based medicines have become widespread in the rich world. The most advanced vaccines are also produced using biotechnology, the modern mRNA-based vaccines going one step further and relying on synthetic biology (and a little on biology). The current production platforms for the advanced medicines have been developed through the concentrated focus of many players in the industry over many years. Given how challenging it is to “control biology”, only a few production platforms had the full attention of the industry: these are the bacterium E.coli, the mammalian cell line “CHO”. These two are the biopharmaceutical industry “work horses”. But they have several limitations and work has never stopped on developing alternatives.
Plants can be used to produce medicines and this ability is being explored as an alternative to the more current bioproduction platforms mentioned.
Use of plants and preparations of plant-derived chemicals is well known as part of traditional medicine. Use of plant chemicals continues to command high interest in the medical industry – just think “Cannabis”.
Plants are highly evolved organisms, able to make very complex proteins, including many of the proteins that are used as biotherapeutics, and a range of novel vaccine formats. One virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine made in plants has been approved – Covifenz®.
Since the mid-1980s there has been consistent development of plant-production platforms (various plant species, various types of technology for production), with a range of strategies and rationale being tested.
It may take a long time for innovations to become adopted. Sometimes, this happens because new technologies are needed to support the innovation, sometimes, it is because the context changes and the innovation finds room to develop (just think about the current interest in all types of “CO2 sequestration” ideas, which had not been “fundable” not so long ago).
We see there is a renewed interest in using plants as production organisms. New product concepts for which a plant production platform seems very well suited are getting funding, and when we look at the use of plants to produce biotherapeutics as a whole, significant efforts in clinical development and commercialization are evident. There are many aspects of the technology that still need optimization and there are still many challenges about the biology that need to be solved.
The context now seems favourable to attracting interest and investment in these types of production systems.
We made this infographic with the objective of raising awareness about this subject and of starting a dialogue with those already involved in this type of work and with innovators, investors and other stakeholders.
We are very much looking forward to engaging in conversations about how plant-based biology can contribute to biomanufacturing of high value therapeutics, vaccines, materials and products to support synthetic biology.
Get in touch to give us your feedback about our infographic, or to know more about the current status in PMPs.