REYKJAVIK, Iceland—Acceptance of genetically modified plant products is no problem for women to use when trying to stop skin wrinkles. A skin “serum” with protein derived from genetically modified barley is being marketed in 22 countries from a corporation based in the small country of Iceland.
The proteins are being extracted from GM barley grown in greenhouses on the island. Orf Genetics devised its greenhouse barley production platform after four scientists discovered a way to alter barley to produce various proteins in the barley seed harvested at the end of a 2 ½ to three month greenhouse growing season.
“We started out simply with an idea, and we were plant geneticist with a plant biology background. We weren’t the first to use plants for this purpose, but we were the first in the world to come to the market with products. Traditionally, these kinds of proteins are produced in bacteria or in animal cells, and there is a risk of infection or viral contamination,” said Einar Mäntylä, Ph.D., vice president, director of research liaison and intellectual property for Orf Genetics and one of the founders of the company.
“Proteins are so complex that you cannot produce them in a laboratory, only living organisms or cells can produce proteins. So, if you are in the business of producing proteins, you must have a cell or an organism to produce them. There are a number of host organisms that are used for the production of proteins. They can be animal cells, they can be bacteria, and in our case we chose plants,” he noted.
The company started with the business model to produce proteins for use by scientists around the world to use as cell culture media. The proteins for this purpose are put into sealed vials with only two micrograms per vial.
“We have developed a technology platform where we have the barley producing the protein of our choice in the seed. We introduce the gene with the information for the specific protein into the barley, and the gene is only expressed in the seed harvested. It is not in the leaves, roots or stems,” Mäntylä said.
“There is nothing that comes from plants that could cause problems in humans such as infection or anything like that. It is a very pristine host organism for this purpose,” he said. “The barley is not intended for use as food or feed but merely the means to produce protein.”
Mäntylä suggested a big advantage of having dry seed as the storage system for the protein is that seed can be stored for years before extraction of the protein occurs. Extraction is not that complicated, according to Mäntylä, as it basically involves milling the seed and using biochemistry processes.
In a 2,000 square meter greenhouse in an ancient lava field, surrounded almost entirely by volcanic basalt rock with moss growing on it, parent GM barley sprouts are planted in pots on a slow moving conveyor. The temperature is controlled by geothermal hot water heating pipes and the lighting is supplied by geothermal-produced electricity from a power plant a couple miles away.
Iceland’s geothermal heating and electric companies pride themselves on the reliability of their networks; therefore, the greenhouse doesn’t have outages that could endanger three months of production, even though the freezing winter winds will howl at 70 miles per hour at times.
An additional 4,000 square meters of greenhouses are located on Iceland for protein production, research of GMO protein platforms and new product development.
As for the expansion of the company’s products, moving into skin care protein production became a goal after the company’s research staff determined they could produce proteins that the skin naturally contains, and the GM barley-produced protein has the ability to rejuvenate the skin. “It is like vitamins for the skin,” Mäntylä explained.
Some hurdles had to be overcome because it is difficult to maintain the stability of proteins in skin care products setting on a store shelf at room temperature under high humidity situations, “which is very unfavorable conditions for proteins because they can easily lose their activity,” Mäntylä said.
But the company came up with one product and is expanding its product offerings. The first product “kind of turned the skin care market in Iceland upside down. About 25 percent of women above 30 are using it,” Mäntylä said.
Distribution of the product is now occurring in 22 countries, including the U.S. where Martha Stewart mentioned it and in a manner endorsed it on her television show.
The company’s EGF BIOeffect serum is a skin care product advertised to contain EGF produced in barley plants. “This cellular activator stimulates renewal of skin cells and slows down biological processes of aging.” And this is why the five women in a group of journalists that I traveled with in Iceland were excited about receiving a free sample of the product. The United Kingdom journalists even asked for a second sample. There seemed to be no fear of GMO products in a skin serum.
The Orf Genetics company is the kind of business that promoters of Iceland would like to see established in the country. It is high tech, a fairly high user of energy (which is extremely cheap) and requires minimal labor to produce a high-value product.