Brussels, 18 Apr 2006
Scientists from Belgium and Finland have created a joint company based on their unique technology for increasing the production of pharmaceuticals in plant cells.
Plants produce around 25 per cent of today's pharmaceuticals, and account for a worldwide turnover of 33 billion euro. They are thus vital for the treatment of many diseases. However, the pharmaceuticals produced by plants are delivered very slowly, and in very small quantities.
In the 1980s, scientists attempted to improve production by turning their attention to plant cells. Plant cells are known to produce the same substances as the plants themselves, but much faster.
But cell cultures also have limitations. The production of secondary metabolites - the pharmaceutical substance produced by a metabolic process - is limited, but very important medically. The team of scientists from the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) have developed a technology that increases the production of these secondary metabolites in a highly targeted way, thus decreasing production time.
'By introducing alternations into the DNA of plant cells, [the scientists] step up the production of certain products and stop the production of others. Their technology also enables them to introduce combinations of genes from other plants into plant cell cultures and thus generate new secondary metabolites,' reads a joint statement on the research. The technology therefore increases the production of secondary metabolites while offering an opportunity to produce new secondary metabolites.
The researchers have already uncovered the genetic profile of the Madagascar periwinkle, the natural source of a drug used to treat cancer.
The Belgian and Finnish teams have now created a company - SoluCel Ltd - to further develop this technology. 'Solu' is Finnish for 'cell'.