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Plant drug factories: GMOs and gene editing are poised to transform medicine. Here’s how.

Plant biotechnology is poised to drastically improve how we consume medication. Using the modern tools of genetic engineering, researchers are developing plant-based drugs that are cheaper, easier to take and even more effective than their existing counterparts. Tautvydas Shuipys reports for the Genetic Literacy Project.

Shuipys writes that while many diseases can be treated with orally administered medications, other drugs such as biologics or biopharmaceuticals, medicines derived from living organisms, must be delivered using other strategies. Conventional drugs like aspirin are chemically synthesized and can survive digestion, whereas biologics like hormones, antibodies, enzymes, and other complex organic molecules are vulnerable to degradation by enzymes in our saliva and stomach, as well as environmental conditions like pH and heat.

This makes biologics in pill form unlikely to survive the harsh environment of the digestive tract.

There are more than 200 FDA-approved biologic drugs. While less than two percent of people in the US rely on biologics, they make up 40 percent of prescription drug spending.

Identifying a better way to produce and administer biologics has the potential to ease the physical and financial burden associated with these drugs. For this reason, researchers are turning to the original inspiration for medications: plants.

Evidence for plant use in medicine dates back all the way to the Palaeolithic Age. But instead of trying to find new plants that produce medically relevant compounds, researchers are turning to genetic engineering to express the same biologics currently grown in bacterial, yeast, or mammalian cells.

Producing biologics in plants has a number of advantages. Plants are potentially less costly to grow, requiring inexpensive fertilizers instead of specialized cell culture growth media. Plants can also be grown in fields or greenhouses without requiring sterile environments, meaning that scaling up production would just require more growing area as opposed to additional expensive bioreactors. An added benefit is that plants do not serve as hosts for human pathogens, reducing the likelihood of harm from contaminants that bacterial or mammalian cells may house.

In addition to medication production, companies are also looking to utilize some of the benefits of plant-based production for vaccines. Medicago, a Canada-based company seeking approval for their plant-produced flu vaccine, has announced that using this same technology, they have produced a candidate vaccine for COVID-19 in twenty days.

By growing the protein for the vaccine in plants, as opposed to using eggs to propagate the virus, Medicago has been able to cut the cost and  time required to produce a new vaccine. The vaccine is now awaiting clinical testing and FDA approval.

Read Tautvydas Shuipys‘ full article on this topic on the Genetic Literacy Project website here.

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