Innovative technology for production of new pharmaceuticals forms basis of new company

Ghent, Belgium & Espoo, Finland – Plants produce a lot of valuable pharmaceuticals − but rather slowly and in small quantities. So, scientists from the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) have together with Ghent University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland developed a technology to increase the production of pharmaceuticals in plant cells. The technology forms the foundation for the new company SoluCel. This week, the authoritative scientific journal PNAS is publishing results from the researchers that confirm the importance of the new technology.

Plants take good care of us
Plants are by far our most important source of vital substances. We think automatically of food, but a great many pharmaceuticals come from plants as well. 25% of today's pharmaceuticals are vegetal − in total, they account for a worldwide turnover of 33 billion euro. Still, because plants are relatively slow producers, the production of these pharmaceuticals is not so straightforward. Therefore, in the 1980s, scientists directed all their attention to the use of plant cells as production units. These plant cells can, in fact, produce the same substances as the plants themselves, but they do it much more quickly.

VIB and VTT researchers make further progress
The cell cultures also have their limitations. The production of secondary metabolites, for example − which are important medically − is very limited. It's possible to modify cell cultures in a way that they do produce these substances in larger quantities, but this is a very time-consuming process. The VIB research group of Dirk Inzé and Alain Goossens, together with the VTT research group of Kirsi-Marja Oksman-Caldentey and Heiko Rischer, has developed a technology that increases the production of these secondary metabolites in a highly targeted way, thus gaining precious time. By introducing alterations into the DNA of plant cells, they 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.

SoluCel Ltd: a new company with Flemish and Finnish roots
The technology of the Flemish-Finnish team kills two birds with one stone: it increases production of secondary metabolites, and offers the possibility of producing new secondary metabolites. At the end of 2005, on the basis of this promising technology, VIB and VTT together established SoluCel Ltd. (www.solucel.com). The name of the company refers to its most important raw material: the plant cells. 'Solu' is Finnish for 'cell'. This week, research results are being published that are a confirmation of the technology. So, company officials waited for this event before announcing the founding of SoluCel publicly.

In the meantime, SoluCel is working hard to bring the new technology platform onto the market. The company is focusing on (bio)pharma firms that are involved in the discovery, development, production, and commercialization of pharmaceuticals from plants. However, SoluCel-technology is generic and can also be applied to other sectors which utilizes plant-derived compounds.

Technology receives approval
This week, the authoritative scientific journal PNAS is publishing results from the Flemish and Finnish researchers. In their article, the researchers reveal the genetic profile of the Madagascar periwinkle, a natural source of a drug that combats cancer. Their findings lay the basis for a better understanding of the plant's secondary metabolism, thus making it easier to alter this important medicinal plant to obtain an optimal production of secondary metabolites.

In its evaluation of the results, PNAS states that this research is an excellent validation of the new technology: 'The present study is an excellent validation of the developed technology platform, as the results are confirming the results which have been gathered in a classical way by a large and elaborate effort by numerous researchers in the past 25 years. At the same time it generates a lot of novel information about genes and secondary metabolites.'

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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