By Dr. Steveb J. Bares
Ask most physicians and healthcare workers and they will say they are aware of the advances in biotechnology that are being made in today's healthcare industry. Every day, discoveries are made that lead to improved orthopedic devices, genetic testing, and treatments for cancer, HIV, Alzheimer's, arthritis, cardiovascular disease and many other ailments.
At the same time, across the nation there is growing awareness of the bio-economy, which offers a new business model based on cellulose and carbohydrate chemistry from renewable resources rather than a dependence on petroleum.
As the significance of a bio-based economy grows, it is important to consider how renewable resources will fit into the development of a myriad of new products and technologies, particularly in the medical field.
Researchers have been involved in genetically altering plants — bio-agriculture — for many years. In fact, it could be argued that the first genetic manipulations were performed when early civilizations selected the best seeds to replant each year, genetically reinforcing the traits they wanted.
In today's world, the business of bio-agriculture means more than hardier crops; it also could mean the discovery of new medical treatments and products that will further extend physicians' ability to successfully treat patients.
In the news recently have been reports about food production research in which plants are modified to offer greater amounts of vitamins and minerals or resistance to pests. However, there are a number of other roles bio-agriculture can play within the medical industry.
Since cultivating plants is one of the few natural ways to produce certain proteins, plant-made pharmaceuticals can work as "factories" to grow some proteins. Once the plants are ready to harvest, they go through an extraction process to separate and purify the therapeutic proteins.
Research with transgenic plants has shown that these proteins can be grown in plants as well as in cell cultures. It is significantly less expensive to grow plants in a greenhouse than to build and maintain traditional methods of cell production using mammalian cell cultures. It is also easier to scale production to meet demand, since plants are not dependent upon specialized facilities.
Another benefit is the safety of the production process itself. For instance, monoclonal antibodies rely on traditional methods of production. This opens up the process to potential contamination with extraneous viral or bacterial materials, pathogens and other contaminants.
Other research is being done on "edible" or plant-derived vaccines, in which a gene from the disease is implanted into a food product that helps build the body's immune system against the disease when ingested.
In other applications, Canada-based SemBioSys Genetics is developing plant-made insulin in safflower at commercially viable levels. According to the company, it can already produce enough insulin on just one acre of land to supply 25,000 patients with insulin for a year.
Pharmaceuticals are not the only segment of the medical industry that can benefit from bio-agriculture. Traditional products can be made using plants, as well. A company in Arizona, Yulex® Corporation, has developed safe, natural rubber latex products from a desert plant that can be used in hospitals and offices without the fear of allergic reactions from traditional latex products. Yulex also has developed environmentally safe, nontoxic industrial cleaning products and a line of household cleaners formulated for allergy and asthma suffers using plant derivatives.
As bio-agriculture grows and begins to produce successful therapies, the Memphis area is well-positioned for many reasons. As a city in the Mid-South that has been nicknamed "America's Distribution Center," Memphis is ideally located to transport the necessary crops to facilities for processing plants into pharmaceuticals and products for the medical industry. The region also has some of the most fertile land in the country. That, combined with our mild climate, makes the region ideal for growing a wide variety of plants that can meet a multitude of needs.
Memphis also has a well-organized biomedical sector that can offer the biotechnology industry access to trained workers and qualified researchers who understand chemistry, genetics, and biological processes.
Scientists are rapidly developing the tools and technology to use plants in the production of cost-effective pharmaceuticals and treatments. As a community, Memphis should promote and develop its existing strengths so that everyone — patients, doctors, farmers, laborers, manufacturers, and businesses — will benefit from the growth in the bio-economy.
Dr. Steven J. Bares is executive director and president of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation