Groundbreaking study provides blueprint to turn plants into medical drug manufacturers: Western University

Dr. Tony Jevnikar and Shengwu Ma, PhD, in the Greenhouse at Western University. via Western University media relations

Researchers at Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute are showcasing the potential to turn plants into mass producers of medical drugs.

Dr. Anthony Jevnikar, a professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and a scientist at Lawson, says they’ve been able to inject tobacco plants with a human protein that regulates inflammation, called Interleukin 37, or IL-37.

The plant then produces more of the protein, and researchers have also been able to successfully extract and quantify it in a way that maintains its function.

“We’re openly sharing this information. Taking a system like this from the scientific part of it to actually producing drugs that patients can use is not a small step, it’s a big step,” Jevnikar said.

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“The question, of course, is: could this drug that we produce actually be made in quantities that we could use as medicine? The reality was, until we thought about using plants, that there really isn’t any practical way of producing the amounts that you would require at a cost that you could afford.”

Jevnikar noted that making the protein using the bacteria E. coli and animal models showed some promise, but plants have now proven to be incredibly successful.

“Plants seem to be able to do it all and tobacco’s a very efficient system to do this. In fact, using this kind of approach, up to 20 per cent of the protein of the tobacco plant that we inject can be the drug that we want it to produce,” he said.

“What that means is that if you need to produce a lot of protein, you basically just grow more plants, and all they need is water and sunlight.”

Jevnikar says he and Shengwu Ma, an adjunct professor in Western’s biology department and fellow Lawson scientist, have been working together for years to address unmet needs in medicine.

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“We have diseases that either do not have any drug that can treat them, or the drug that could be used cannot be made in the quantities that you need for the price that you could afford and so that was always our goal,” he explained.

“This is not the only protein that we’ve made but this is actually a very, very interesting one.”

Jevnikar is looking into the impact IL-37 has on preventing organ injury during transplantation but he believes the results of the study could have a profound impact.

“Our hope is that this will translate into an actual business industry that in fact can utilize the technology that we have presented to the world.”

The study is published in the journal Plant Cell Reports. 

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