Molecular farming targets magic bullets

New companies forming in the current economic environment are rare, but here's one: Plantform.

It's a biotechnology enterprise, emerging after years of research that have established Guelph and Plantform's co-founder, University of Guelph environmental biologist professor Chris Hall and his research group, as leaders in molecular farming.

Hall described the fledgling venture as part of a presentation he made last month at the university for the News@Noon newsmaker series, sponsored by the University of Guelph — Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs partnership.

It's a testament to how far he's come in the past decade that he's been putting disease-fighting antibodies into plants, part of that time as the prestigious Canada Research Chair in Recombinant Antibody Technology.

Antibodies, says Hall, are magic bullets. They're the defence mechanisms the animal world naturally mounts when an infectious agent enters the body.

They don't occur naturally in plants. When they're introduced through biotechnology into a plant's genetic code, the plant goes on to produce seed with the antibodies. Later, grown plants are harvested and the antibodies extracted.

Hall has been using tobacco for his studies because it's a nonfood plant. And compared to most North American plants, its leaves are huge. That means it generates significant biomass, so he can harvest more antibodies per plant.

Those antibodies are needed now. A treatment for one type of breast cancer is a commercial antibody-based drug created in the laboratory. It's administered to as many as 10,000 Canadians annually, and it's expensive — more than $30,000 for a year's treatment. Hall believes a generic version of this antibody could be created much more affordably, in plants.

Indeed, his research group has already produced small quantities in tobacco. Now, they're testing it to make sure it behaves the same way as the commercial version, and to decide whether it goes onto clinical trials.

Antibodies have many other uses, too. And that's where Hall's Ontario Agricultural College training comes in. Instead of extracting the antibodies, certain ones can also be left in plants, to help the plants resist certain environmental contaminants.

For example, some 17 students and technicians in Hall's laboratory are working with him on a way to help greenhouse plants resist a pesky blight and rot fungus called Pythium aphanidermatum. It spreads quickly by spores, and currently has no effective control. The antibody they're working toward would help plants resist infection caused by the spores of the fungus.

Another use being developed by the research team is bioactive paper, in which the harvested antibodies can be bound to paper as a coating to capture disease-causing agents called pathogens.

Hall envisions making filters from this antibody-based paper to remove pathogens from water in home applications, as well as large-scale city water facilities.

In fact, Hall believes all kinds of products are possible with this antibody-based paper — protective clothing, air filters, face masks, food packaging and biohazard detection, just to name a few.

A company's startup costs for this kind of antibody technology is significant. But after that, Hall says, production costs are low, less than a few dollars per gram. He's certain they'll be needed — in fact, he's predicting a capacity crunch. However, the process needs streamlining to extract the antibodies in pure form from tobacco. New technology is required to make purification from plants efficient and affordable.

That's where Plantform comes in. Hall hopes it's an answer to not only the production of inexpensive antibodies, but also to the purification process.

We can hope he's right . . . and that his magic bullet is at hand.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.