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New Company to Make Drugs from Plants

By Nancy Touchette

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Chlorogen will use tobacco plants to produce proteins, drugs, and vaccines.

A new biotechnology company has come up with a way to manufacture human proteins in plants by adding DNA to plant chloroplasts, the organelles where photosynthesis occurs.

Chlorogen, Inc., of St. Louis , Missouri , intends to produce drugs and vaccines using the chloroplast technology. The company's first commercial product will be a human protein often used in blood transfusions, called human serum albumin. It will likely be sold to laboratories for research purposes until it is approved for use in humans.

Chloroplast technology, pioneered by one of the company founders, Henry Daniell of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, is potentially a cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce proteins.

Daniell used the technology to develop an anthrax vaccine that is being tested by the US National Institutes of Health.

“One plant can produce 400 million doses of anthrax vaccine,” says Daniell. “The vaccine is also free of any contaminants and human pathogens.”

The company will use tobacco plants for most proteins it plans to make, including interferon, insulin, and human serum albumin. A single tobacco plant produces a million seeds and can be harvested several times throughout the year.

“Tobacco plants are like fruit flies of the plant [research] world,” says Daniell. “They are easy to manipulate and can produce large quantities of protein.”

Chloroplast technology is environmentally friendly because genes are inserted into chloroplast DNA rather than the nucleus. Chloroplasts are not involved in plant reproduction so there's little danger that inserted genes would be released into the environment.

Chloroplast technology also yields up to 1,000 times more protein than traditional methods. Each inserted gene gets copied 10,000 times in each plant cell, producing abundant amounts of protein.

The next steps for the company are to scale up production and to develop cheap and efficient methods to purify proteins for commercial use.

Daniell, H. et al. Milestones in chloroplast genetic engineering: an environmentally friendly era in biotechnology. Trends Plant Sci. 7 , 84-91 (2002).
H. Daniell. Production of human serum albumin in transgenic crops without interfering with food or feed production. ISB News Report , September, 2003.

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