Brussels, 14 Jul 2004
The European Commission is providing 12 million euro under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for a new project aimed at using genetically modified (GM) plants to grow vaccines against rabies, tuberculosis, diabetes and HIV.
The first international project of its kind, Pharma-Planta brings together 39 scientists from 11 European countries and South Africa. The team of researchers will develop the concept from plant modification through to clinical trials, and expect to begin human trials of the drugs by 2009.
The project will address significant health problems both in Europe and the developing world, although the primary aim is to provide medicines for poorer countries.
'We are addressing what we consider to be serious issue of global inequality of health,' said the scientific project coordinator, Professor Julian Ma from St George Hospital Medical School in the UK. 'The major burden of disease is in the developing world, but these are the countries that do not have access to vaccines,' Professor Ma added.
GM technology can be used to force a plant's molecular apparatus to produce a range of medically useful compounds. For example, the use of genetic modification has been used to generate human insulin and a hepatitis B vaccine. However, plant derived materials used in humans have never been formally addressed within the EU. This ground-breaking project is aimed at helping the 3.3 million people a year that die from preventable diseases such as tuberculosis, rabies or diphtheria.
Indeed, plants have enormous potential for the production of recombinant pharmaceutical proteins, as they are inexpensive and versatile. As Professor Ma explained: 'Plants are inexpensive to grow and if we were to engineer them to contain a gene for a pharmaceutical product, they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost.'
According to the Professor, the cost of developing plant-derived products could be 10 to 100 times lower than conventional production, which is 'labour intensive, expensive and often produces relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals.'
If the technique is successful, it would be licensed freely to developing countries, who could start up their own production at low cost and generate the amounts that they require. Although the project has not yet decided which plants will be used, the likely candidates are tobacco, maize, potatoes and tomatoes.
'The multidisciplinary approach,' said project partner Mario Pezotti from the university of Verona in Italy 'will permit us to look into all the different experimental aspects connected to the use of genetically modified plants, with particular attention on human and environmental safety.'