Plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs) hold great promise for helping produce and potentially enable new ways to treat a wide range of diseases and conditions, including cancer, arthritis and cystic fibrosis. PMPs are in various stages of development for use in the production of existing as well as new treatments for a range of therapeutic needs.

The potential benefits of using plants to produce therapeutic agents over other methods, such as genetically modified animals or conventional mammalian cell-based bioreactor production, include lower production costs, increased and more easily scaleable production capacity and lower risks of animal prion or virus transfer.

There are a number of PMPs in field or clinical trials today. It is likely that full-scale production and commercialization of some PMPs will be seen in the near future, while others are still several years away.

Some of the potential therapeutic applications for PMPs being explored today include:

Cancer Vaccines – Large Scale Biology (LSBC) is using Geneware (a process used to test the function of encoded novel genes and proteins, and manufacture bulk quantities of the complex proteins) to manufacture personalized vaccines for use in cancer treatment. These vaccines will be customized to the characteristics of each individual patient’s cancer, and made using genetic information obtained from cancer cells taken from the patient. Using Geneware, large quantities of patient-specific vaccine can be produced and purified within a matter of weeks.

Cancer Treatment – Under the terms of a partnership agreement between Dow Chemical Company and Sunol Molecular Corp., Dow will express in plants, an anti-tissue factor antibody developed by Sunol for treatment of multiple types of cancer. The research will focus on glycosylation, in vivo testing, and effector function. Knowledge gained from the work is expected to demonstrate the utility of plant production for injectable biopharmaceuticals.

Gastrointestinal Health, Iron Deficiency, Topical and Fungal Infections – Ventria Bioscience has been working on a method for the production of lactoferrin and lysozyme.  Lactoferrin and lysozyme are proteins found in human breast milk as well as most epithelial surface secretions including tears, nasogastric, saliva, and bronchial. Lactoferrin and lysozyme play a number of important roles in human physiology and a wide variety of potential products could be pursued through their development. Some of these include: gastrointestinal health; management of acute diarrhea; treatment and prevention of iron deficiency; providing iron delivery for infant nutrition; iron supplementation for adults; treatment of topical infections and inflammations; and alleviation of fungal infections.

Cystic Fibrosis and Exocrin Pancreatic Insufficiency – An absence of lipase prevents the body from being able to digest food lipids, leading to a condition known as steatorrhea. This condition is seen in patients suffering from exocrin pancreatic insufficiency and Cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease affecting approximately 30,000 children and adults in the United States. A defective gene causes the body to produce an abnormally thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections. Currently, the only way to acquire lipase is from cattle or pig glands, or through expensive laboratory processes. Meristem Therapeutics has been working on a way to produce lipase in a manner that is 14 times cheaper than conventional methods.

Traveler’s Diarrhea – ProdiGene, Inc. has been working in cooperation with the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, studying the safety and immunogenicity of an oral vaccine against Traveler’s Diarrhea, a condition caused by enterotoxigenic E. coli.

Other potential uses – Ultimately, plant-made pharmaceuticals will be able to produce treatments for a wide array of conditions such as cancer, HIV, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, Hepatitis C, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, iron deficiency and many others. In addition, recently published research suggests that some day plants may be used to help produce a safe, low-cost and limitless supply of human blood products.