The genetic drugs that could grow on trees

'Biopharming' promises genetic cures grown in plants. But should one firm be allowed to corner the market?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A tiny biotechnology company has won a landmark patent to produce genetic drugs from everyday crops. The advance could be the first step on the road to having valuable medicines literally growing on trees.

San Diego-based Epicyte is a pioneer of an emerging science known as "biopharming", where disease-fighting antibodies are grown in living material. One of the first products Epicyte is working on is a revolutionary herpes cure made by splicing human genes onto corn DNA.

Epicyte's patent represents one of the first solid advances in the current race among biotech researchers to exploit the potential of growing drugs in crops. Because of the terms of the patent, the group has also won seemingly total control of the whole branch of science for the next six years. The company is looking at using other plants, such as rice and tobacco, to produce different antibodies.

Other approaches by rival companies have included developing ways to grow human antibodies in animals. One project is focusing on using chickens' eggs, another on creating drugs in cow's milk. Epicyte's herpes cure extracts the antibodies from the corn and, in partnership with Dow Chemical, converts them to a gel.

Antibody research is a hot topic in biotech circles. There are currently 11 antibody drugs on the market, though none have so far been produced from plants. Worldwide, there are more than 90 antibody-based drugs in development.

The patent granted to Epicyte is exceptionally broad. The herpes cure is being developed in conjunction with an academic body ­ the Scripps Research Institute ­ and both groups have won exclusive rights to "molecular pharming" technology. As one US patent attorney said: "It appears to be a very broad patent for all antibodies grown in plants. It's amazing."

But environmental groups have rushed to condemn the concept of plants containing strips of human genes, particularly because of the risk that the corn could cross-pollinate with crops destined for human consumption.