European scientists expect to begin human trials using pharmaceuticals grown in GM plants within the next five years. The European Union has awarded €12 million to a network of scientists in 11 European countries and South Africa and the aim is to use plants to produce vaccines and treatments against major diseases including AIDS, rabies, diabetes and TB.
This unique consortium, known as Pharma-Planta, will develop the concept from plant modification through to clinical trials. Using this joined up approach all the implications of using GM plants to create pharmaceuticals will be explored, with particular emphasis given to human and environmental safety.
The administrative co-ordinator of the project, Professor Rainer Fischer (Fraunhofer IME, Aachen, Germany) said ‘While the production of pharmaceuticals in other genetically modified systems is well-established and documented, there are no precedents for the same production process in plants. The duration of this project is 5 years and although the challenges ahead may appear formidable, in this time we hope to have products in clinical trials."
The focus in this project is to provide medicines for some of mankind’s most devastating diseases. A similar approach is already being used successfully in Cuba to create antibodies which allow the purification of Hepatitis B vaccine. The Pharma-Planta project aims to take the concept one step further and produce the vaccine or the therapeutic itself in plants.
The scientific co-ordinator of the consortium, Professor Julian Ma from St. George’s Hospital Medical School, London explained: "The potential of this approach is enormous. Plants are inexpensive to grow, and if we were to engineer them to contain a gene for a pharmaceutical product, they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost. The current methods used to generate these types of treatments include genetic modification of human cells and microorganisms such as bacteria. These techniques are labour intensive, expensive and often only produce relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals."
"Using plants may allow us to produce pharmaceuticals that were previously ruled out due to production limitations or expense, and would undoubtedly help to make previously unavailable drugs accessible to the developing world."
One of the biggest hurdles for the researchers will be to decide on the crop that will produce the medicines and vaccines. In particular, the researchers will have to decide whether to use a food crop. The project's Biosafety Coordinator, Professor Philip Dale from the John Innes Centre in the UK said: "Possible candidates include maize and tobacco plants, however careful evaluation will have to take place before a decision can be reached. We will also carefully consider where the production sites will be based. We already have a number of sites in mind, both within the EU and South Africa."