Instead of making drugs in stainless-steel tanks, scientists at Phylloceuticals use plants. “The plants have all the same machinery that mammalian cells have,” says Barry Holtz, PhD, CSO. “In fact, they’re not biased as much as mammalian cells are with sensitivities to making proteins.”
That’s just the start of the benefits of bioprocessing in plants as Holtz notes several other plant-based advantages. A plant doesn’t need to be sterile, fed with expensive nutrients, or require lots of energy or space. The downstream processes, however, remain similar to traditional methods of bioprocessing.
By growing a genetically modified tobacco relative, Nicotiana sp., through an automated hydroponic process, Holtz and his colleagues say they have produced kilograms of product in a matter of weeks.
“Nobody ever touches the plants,” Holtz says. This process can produce, for example, vaccine antigens and antibodies. In addition, Phylloceuticals also uses aquaculture to grow Lemna sp. to produce various biomolecules.
Both of these methods make great heterologous proteins,” continues Holtz. “They’re folded properly, act properly, and we now can make them identical to human glycoforms—in most cases, superior to mammalian cells.”
The speed of this process really emerged in the H1 flu pandemic. The same genetically modified tobacco plant was able to produce 50 million doses of vaccine in only 12 weeks from issuance of the emailed gene sequence, according to Holtz, who adds “That shows you the speed and responsiveness of the system.”
The bioprocessing method used by Phylloceuticals includes other elements of versatility. For example, with no one touching the plants or even the seeds and no need for any animal-derived products, viral-clearance studies are not required. Plus, one of Phylloceuticals’ bioprocessing facilities, that Holtz estimates would produce 150 kilograms of product a year, costs less than $120 million to build—compared to $1 billion or more for a traditional facility.
These facilities can also be built almost anywhere, which satisfies the company’s goal to provide local manufacturing capacity in underserved areas of the world and yet be run largely from one central location. “You will still need quality assurance people on-site,” Holtz adds, “but we can analyze and continuously improve the process using that data, from any place on the planet.”