1 July 2001
Farming for pharmaceuticals
New Brunswick, N.J.—New Jersey farmers may someday soon cash in on pharmaceutical manufacturing.
That is because Rutgers University scientists have developed a way to use living plants to reliably and inexpensively manufacture biologically active compounds ranging from human insulin to cancer-fighting supplements.
A research group led by Rutgers professor of biology Ilya Raskin plans to partner with New Jersey farmers through Phytomedics, Inc., a Dayton, N.J.–based company he founded in 1996, to grow plants for their therapeutic benefits rather than their food value. Phytomedics is currently training selected New Jersey farmers to use the new technology.
Raskin said he expects his patented technology to economically revive New Jersey farmers because they will be able to move from producing low-value food commodities to high-value therapeutic agents. "Traditional agriculture is aimed at increasing plant yields—something that’s important in third-world nations but no longer as important here," he said.
In the Phytomedics product pipeline, undergoing testing in animals, are therapeutic compounds to fight bacteria, fungi, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, HIV, and herpes. Others under study show promise as tools to combat baldness, high cholesterol levels, and Parkinson’s disease, Raskin said.
The most advanced pipeline prescription product is a botanical drug that in clinical trials has proved highly effective against rheumatoid arthritis. But the first product out of the shoot is a nonprescription, anticancer food supplement made from a compound produced by winter cress, a leafy plant sometimes used in salads. As a nonprescription product, it won’t undergo the time-consuming federal approval process for prescription drugs, Raskin said.
Equally promising is Phytomedics plant manufacturing technology aimed at the market for recombinant proteins, which combines genes from different species. The technology, in which recombinant genes insert in plant chromosomes to manufacture pharmacologically active proteins, currently induces tobacco plants to make insulin and other disease-fighting proteins.
The new technology reconnects ethical drugs with plants, their original source before synthetic drugs came to dominate the marketplace, Raskin said. Although pharmaceutical companies have found many plant sources for drugs, the primitive bioprospecting methods used to collect them haven’t changed for centuries—essentially gathering them from plants in the wild or from cultivated fields and then grinding them up to extract their curative powers, Raskin said.
But with the new technology, researchers can turn plants into "pharmaceutical factories" that continuously supply therapeutic compounds by growing them in tightly controlled and regulated hydroponic (grown in water) greenhouses. "Plants can’t run away from unfriendly environments or changing conditions, so they have become chemical chameleons, making chemicals in response to these different stresses to defend themselves," Raskin said. "Those differing chemicals are the reason why the same food plants grown under different conditions taste different."
Phytomedics technology uses this fact by "stressing" plants to induce them to make biologically active compounds in their leaves and root systems.
To speed up the process of bioprospecting for promising compounds in plants from all over the world, the Rutgers/Phytomedics team developed patented technology that uses the numbers-crunching power of computers employing bioinformatics and data-mining techniques.
The technology allows the research team to rapidly compare the molecular structures of newly discovered plant compounds with known compounds to uncover those with therapeutic potential. This approach has reduced the time needed for identifying promising compounds from years to a few days, Raskin said.
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