'Plantibodies' drugs advance as big pharma stands aside
Biotech drug production techniques based on plants, which may prove to be faster, higher yielding and cheaper than current methods using mammalian cells, haven't caught on with the biggest pharmaceutical companies.
The leading players in so-called "plantibodies" include San Diego's Mapp Pharmaceutical, which garnered global attention for an experimental Ebola drug given to two American medical workers, as well as companies like Germany's Icon Genetics, Canada's PlantForm Corp, and Delaware-based IBio Inc. All of the privately-held companies are working to produce antibodies, protein drugs and vaccines in fast-growing plants.
These companies hope the lower cost of plant-based production -- in some cases as little as one-tenth the expense of conventional antibody manufacture -- will eventually capture the attention of larger drugmakers. Big pharmaceutical makers have yet to embrace the technique after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their current manufacturing lines.
Industry experts say large drugmakers also need evidence that the process can pass muster with regulators who have yet to approve a biotech drug produced completely from plants.
"I think the interest will come," said Victor Klimyuk, chief operating officer at Icon Genetics. "It's typical that the Big Pharma industry is very conservative in what they establish and what they invest in."
Bayer AG in 2010 joined with Icon to launch early-stage human trials of a cancer vaccine grown in tobacco plants, but the larger healthcare company has since dropped out.
Bayer declined to comment on why it decided not to pursue the venture. Icon's Klimyuk said Icon is seeking a partner to move the personalized vaccine into mid-stage trials.
"Our technology can complement standard manufacturing techniques," Klimyuk said. "It may work best when speed is required or when flexibility is required ... to manufacture vaccines for an epidemic or for fast, reliable production."
From Metal Vats to Greenhouses
Antibodies are proteins used by the body's immune system to block the path of foreign, potentially damaging invaders.
There are around 30 antibody-based drugs on the market in the United States - including blockbuster cancer therapies such as Avastin and Rituxan, both from Roche Holding AG. They are all produced from mammalian cells, often from hamsters, that are cultivated in large stainless steel vats.
"The technology in use now is very established and extremely efficient the big companies have made those investments and adopted those systems," said Michael Kamarck, a biotechnology industry consultant and former manufacturing executive at Merck & Co Inc, referring to mammalian cell cultivation. "But if you are a small biotech with a great idea, it might make sense to use the tobacco plant to quickly produce antibodies for testing."
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