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Tobacco plants may save lives

I get to learn about some pretty neat things in my life as someone who writes about food and farming. The following story, which was released by the Agri-Technology Commercialization Centre a few weeks ago, ranks high on my list of all-time favourites.

PlantForm Corporation, a University of Guelph spin-off company, is using tobacco plants to manufacture treatments used to combat critical illnesses like cancer using technology developed by university researchers.The principle focus, says PlantForm’s President and CEO Don Stewart, is to use tobacco plants to create low cost versions of biosimilar drugs— generic versions of biological medications. The plants are grown indoors and, through genetic engineering, made to express certain compounds that are then purified into alternatives to popular drugs like Herceptin, used to treat breast cancer.

“At $3,500 per dose of Herceptin, it can cost $40,000 to treat a breast cancer patient,” he says, explaining that typical biologic medications are manufactured using highly expensive cell culture systems in sophisticated pharmaceutical facilities. “Our plant-derived product is half that cost, meaning we can reduce that treatment cost to $20,000 for each patient.”

The company is also involved in a project funded through the National Research Council Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to produce a low cost drug alternative to treat HIV/AIDS in Africa. Ultimately, Stewart hopes the technology can be transferred into manufacturing directly in Africa so the drug can be made right where it is needed most.

Significant funds are spent annually around the world on life-saving medications, and being able to produce them more economically would make a great impact on healthcare expenditures.

“We can bring considerable savings to the healthcare system if we can reduce the annual cost of a treatment by 50 per cent, for example,” he says. “There are often limits to the number of people who can obtain certain drugs because they are so expensive. By bringing manufacturing to regions where the drugs are being used, we will make them more accessible.”

There are economic benefits to Ontario as well. PlantForm is hoping to build a manufacturing plant in the province to access the expertise of people who are familiar with greenhouse production and growing tobacco. The plants will be grown indoors in PlantForm’s own facilities and a four-acre greenhouse facility can produce enough tobacco to replace over one billion dollars’ worth of Herceptin.

Stewart credits Bioenterprise, a provincial organization with a mandate to help secure investment support for agricultural innovations, with playing a key role in PlantForm’s transition from start-up to full-fledged company.

“Bioenterprise sought us out and helped us get started, especially in showing us the correct ways to establish and finance a new company,” he explains. “Their knowledge and expertise, especially in early stage funding, have provided us with a lot of value and it has been an extremely helpful relationship for us.”

Funding for Bioenterprise is provided under Growing Forward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

Click here to listen to an interview with Don Stewart.

Photo provided courtesy of PlantForm.

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