Genetically modified (GM) plants are to be used to grow vaccines for use in the worldwide fight against HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes and rabies thanks to a grant of €12 million from the European Union, reports Phil Taylor.
The Pharma-Planta programme, supported by the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), will combine the efforts of 39 scientists from 11 European countries and South Africa to address significant health problems affecting Europe and the developing world. The primary aim is to provide medicines for poorer countries.
This is the first international project of its kind, according to the EU. Pharma-Planta will develop the concept from plant modification through to clinical trials and they expect to begin human trials of the drugs within four years.
"We are addressing the serious issue of global inequality of health," says scientific coordinator Julian Ma from St George's Hospital Medical School in London, UK. "Although the major burden of 21st century disease is in the developing world we have to accept it as a global problem as these are the countries that do not have access to vaccines."
"We know we can use GM technology to force a plant's molecular apparatus to produce a range of medically useful compounds. Already genetic modification of other organisms is being used to produce human insulin and a hepatitis B vaccine," continued Prof Ma.
However, plant derived materials used in humans have never been formally addressed within the EU. So Pharma Planta can be seen as a ground-breaking project that could provide help for the millions of people that die each year throughout the world from vaccine preventable diseases.
Because plants are inexpensive to grow they could be used to produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost - anywhere between 10 and 100 times lower than conventional production, which is often labour intensive, expensive and often produces relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals.
If the project is successful, the techniques would be licensed to developing countries. They would then be able to start up their own production to generate whatever amount they require at a cost that would not impact greatly on the countries' economy, according to Prof Ma.
Although the project has not finally decided which plants will be used, the likely candidates are tobacco or maize, both of which have already been extensively tested as vehicles for production of pharmaceuticals.
A report published recently by Frost & Sullivan has suggested that so-called plant molecular farming could be a valuable new tool in improving the efficiency and reducing the cost of making biological drugs, the market for which is tipped to more than double from a value of $45.0 billion in 2004 to $98.2 billion by 2011.