Cures for Cancer Could Grow on Trees
Kathleen L. Hefferon and Henry I. Miller
Politicians talk a lot about farming but seldom about “pharming,” even though the latter can also have a big impact on Americans’ pocketbooks—and their health. The punny name refers to genetically modifying plants such as corn, rice, tobacco and alfalfa to produce high concentrations of pharmaceutical ingredients. Many common medicines already come from plants, including morphine, the fiber supplement Metamucil and the cancer drug Taxol. Yet heavy-handed federal regulations have frozen out pharming efforts, making it far too difficult for researchers to use this approach to create new medications.
An article this month in the journal Nature highlights pharming’s enormous promise. The authors estimate that proteins could be obtained from genetically engineered tobacco plants at 1/1,000th the cost of current methods. Compared with proteins derived from mammalian cells or chemical systems, proteins from genetically engineered plants are also easy to scale up and synthesize with other proteins, and they remain stable at room temperature for longer periods.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved for marketing two human drugs obtained from genetically engineered animals—an anticoagulant secreted into goat’s milk and an enzyme to treat a rare genetic disease, obtained from the eggs of genetically engineered chickens—but none from genetically engineered plants. The primary reason is excessive regulation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA.