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A team of European researchers plans to perfect techniques for producing
antibodies and vaccines, obtained from plants, to prevent and treat major
human diseases, such as AIDS, rabies and TB, July 2004.
The idea is to use genetically modified (GM) crops eventually to produce
plant-based pharmaceuticals. 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. The project, led by the
Fraunhofer Institute for molecular biology and ecology in Aachen (Germany),
with scientific co-ordination by St George?s Hospital Medical School in
London (UK), hopes to start clinical trials by the end of the funding period
?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. ?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
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. But plants are inexpensive to
grow and if ?engineered? to contain a gene for a pharmaceutical product,
they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost.
First concrete applications
The first product that might come out of the EU integrated project, possibly
grown in maize, 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 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 will also be to identify secure methods and
places for production.
Although the consortium has yet to decide which plants to use, likely
candidates include maize, tobacco and tomatoes. 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.
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