Should Producing Medicines From GMO Plants Be Allowed?
- What Is Biopharming?
Biopharming is an experimental application of biotechnology that was started around the early 90’s.
It basically genetically modifies plants by inserting foreign genes that code for proteins like monoclonal proteins, vaccines and antibodies. That way the plants will now have the “instructions” to produce pharmaceutically important proteins.
The same is being currently done using microbes.
Some microbes actually produce proteins that have antibiotic properties and for decades now we have benefited from companies who have developed the technology of growing these microbes in the lab and harvesting these proteins.
There is increased interest in biopharming because experts feel that this might be a most cost-efficient alternative to using engineered bacteria or mammalian cell cultures. Unlike other biotech procedures, plant cells possess the biochemical machinery required to synthesize proteins in their complete form. This means that plants are able to produce proteins that have been folded and glycosylated, making the protein biologically active.
- How Is It Done?
There are several approaches to biopharming.
Some approaches may use crops such as rice and corn, while some will use non-crop plants. There are also several compartments in plant cells that will be able to accommodate full translation and post-translation of the protein. One such compartment is the chloroplast. It is an organelle that contains chlorophyll and the compartment of the plant cell in which photosynthesis takes place. The organelle has a complete set of genes that are completely different from the genes in the plant cell nucleus, and each organelle may also contain up to 100 copies of all the genomes. If we were to insert the gene for the desired protein into the DNA of the chloroplast, we would be able to produce large amounts of the proteins the genes were transcribed for.
Two non-crop plants, the duckweed (Lemna minor) and a type of moss (Physocmitrella patens) have shown to be efficient in the production of biopharmaceuticals.
These two plants can be grown in bioreactors and as opposed to being grown in the field, growing these plants in bioreactors makes it easier to extract the protein we need without the chance of contaminating other plants in the wild with its DNA through cross-pollination.
Proteins can also be grown in transgenic carrot and tobacco cells. However corn and rice remain to be one of the most popular plants to use in field trials.
- The Challenges of Biopharming and Some Consequences
If biopharming was as great as it sounds why does it face so many challenges?
Biopharming faces a general negative view of GMO products. The U.S. FDA very rarely grants a green light to conduct field testing on transgenic crops and it is harder still to get a nod to market products that have been created through biopharming. Like all new technology, experts fear that biopharming may cause uncontrollable consequences, and truth be told, they make a good point.
The contamination of the food chain with crops that are growing antibiotics could cause an even larger problem with regards to drug resistant bacteria.
Other experts are concerned that plant grown human proteins may be considered as a foreign particle by the body and elicit allergic reactions.
- The Benefits of Biopharming
Biopharming could prove to be a safer and more efficient way to mass produce pharmaceutically important proteins. The demand for biotech pharmaceuticals is growing steadily over the years and biopharming could help satisfy the demand for such products.
Products produced in plants could be stored for longer periods in dry samples (i.e. in seeds and leaves) and without refrigeration. Plants also do not contain pathogens that are harmful to humans, therefore offering a low contamination risk for animal viruses and proteins.
Biopharming provides a way to produce industrial enzymes, medical proteins and even cosmetic and functional food items safely and economically (at least in theory). This could prove to be valuable in developing countries where medications are still expensive and hard to come by.
- Should Producing Medicines From GMOs Be Allowed?
Yes, but with careful consideration! The concern of experts and activists against using genetically modified crops to produce medicine is understandable.
Finding antibiotic genes in our food supply could pose a real problem with regards to antibiotic resistant organisms. However, totally banning this new technology could rob us of the opportunity to produce cheap and safe pharmaceutical products.
Producing medicine from GMO plants should be allowed given that stringent guidelines and additional research be conducted to minimize and manage all the risks involved.