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Smaller Companies Using Plants to Create Drugs

Update Date: Aug 18, 2014 11:59 AM EDT

The next big thing in drug production could be based on plants. According to smaller drug manufactures, using plants to create drugs could be faster and more cost effective than the traditional methods involving mammalian cells. However, big name pharmaceuticals have yet to jump on this wagon.

So far, the companies that have started testing the plant-based drug production method, which has been dubbed "plantibodies," include San Diego's Mapp Pharmaceutical, Delaware-Based IBio Inc., Germany's Icon Genetics and Canada's PlantForm Corporation.

"I think the interest will come. It's typical that the Big Pharma industry is very conservative in what they establish and what they invest in," said Victor Klimyuk, chief operating officer at Icon Genetics, reported by FOX News. "Our technology can complement standard manufacturing techniques. It may work best when speed is required or when flexibility is required ... to manufacture vaccines for an epidemic or for fast, reliable production."

Back in 2010, Bayer AG had worked with Icon genetics and tested a cancer vaccine that was grown in tobacco plants. However, Bayer AG chose to drop out without citing a reason. Icon Genetics is currently looking for another partner that can help them most the vaccine into mid-stage trials.

Currently, there are about 30 antibody-based drugs available on the U.S. market. All of these drugs have been made using mammalian cells, mostly from hamsters. Even though this technique is "very established and extremely efficient" explained Michael Kamarck, a biotechnology industry consultant and former manufacturing executive at Merck & Co Inc., it is not cost-effective. For smaller companies, the answer could be in plantibodies, which has the potential to cost up to around one-tenth of the expenses from using mammalian cells.

The only plant-based treatment that has been successful is Elelyso, a drug made by Israel's Protalix Biotherapeuritcs that is marketed with Pfizer Inc. The drug was approved in the U.S. for a rare disorder. It was created by using genetically engineered carrot cells. Pfizer has specifically stated that it is not pursuing plant-based drug production methods at the moment.

"We actually use cell culture - carrot cells or tobacco - in a way that is similar to what is done in growing mammalian cells for the biotech industry," said Protalix CEO David Aviezer.

Plantibodies has yet to gained more popularity most likely due to the fact that there is not enough evidence suggesting that this method could consistently produce effective drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also brought up concerns regarding the plant's potential to trigger allergies.

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