Plant biotechnology research group leader Dr Rachel Chikwamba reports that the substantial grant will assist the group in expanding its investigations.
“We’ve been working on this project for a year. This funding will give the impetus we need to do this work,” says Chikwamba.
The funding has been earmarked for the CSIR’s contribution to the Pharma-Planta initiative, a European Commission-funded consortium, researching plant-expressed clinical-grade pharmaceuticals against various diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and rabies.
Chikwamba says the DST grant will be used as funding subject to further financial support from the European Union (EU).
As a project partner, the CSIR – in collaboration with other local partners – is expected to develop a transgenic plant-based platform for the production of recombinant (material produced by genetic engineering) pharmaceuticals in plants, with government and nongovernmental organisations developing detailed ethical and regulatory protocols for the production of pharmaceuticals in plants.
With biotechnology advances in recent years, plants have been generated which can produce very specific proteins for use in human health. Traditionally, these proteins have been made through microbial fermentation and from mammalian cells. Termed molecular farming, the production of the proteins takes place through growing and harvesting genetically modified crops with the object of producing pharmaceuticals and not food.
Experiments for anti-HIV and antirabies antibodies are currently conducted in transgenic plants. Transgenic plants are considered cost-effective, versatile and can be produced on any scale, depending on demand.
“The development of plant-based ‘cell factories’, therefore, holds the promise of more effective infectious disease prevention and more afford-able medical treatment within South Africa and Africa,” says Chikwamba.
The advantages of pharmaceuticals produced through plants lie in product safety; ease of storage and distribution; as well as being suitable for rapid and economic scale-up.
Human resources training on this project is expected to result in a critical body of expertise in plant and animal biotechnology, human health, and the supporting crosscutting technologies in South Africa.
The CSIR has already experienced significant benefits in interacting with the participating laboratories relating to equipment and infrastructure, as well as the knowledge of the world’s leading scientists in this domain, that has been valuable in human capital development.
“There are a lot of benefits to interacting with these laboratories as they are cutting-edge laboratories which allow us to keep up with the best technology in the world. There is also a possibility of sending students overseas to learn new techniques,” says Chikwamba.
The CSIR’s primary role and tasks relate to the genetic transformation of plants with the experimental pharmaceutical molecules under confined conditions. The role of the CSIR will also include molecular analyses, growing the transgenic plants in a contained environment and subsequent downstream processing.
“We need to start seeing results within the next three years. We are on track,” says Chikwamba.
The Pharma-Planta project is considered to be of strategic value to South Africa and the region, and, if successful, is expected to have a significant impact on the local pharmaceutical industry – even revolutionising the production of some pharmaceutical proteins. It will increase the competitiveness of existing local pharmaceutical industries and possibly new players in the industry.
However, it will be a long time before doctors can use the products of these pharmaceutical plants to combat diseases. If the production pipeline can be perfected within the five-year duration of the project, the active pharmaceutical ingredients then have to undergo an extensive series of safety and clinical trials before they are approved and licensed, and this could also take several years.
“As it is a long-term project, it should be at least another ten years before these products could be available,” says Chikwamba.
The consortium intends to show that plants can be used safely to produce pharmaceuticals and that this can be achieved while adhering to all regulatory requirements.
The Pharma-Planta consortium consists of 39 academic laboratories and industrial partners representing 32 organisations from 12 European countries and South Africa.
The CSIR is the only full partner from South Africa, but the organisation will involve and collaborate with local partners on selected issues.
Pharma-Planta is a Theme 1-funded project within the European Commission’s Sixth Framework Programme, which is the European Commission’s main instrument for research funding.
The project specifically tackles pharmaceuticals for the prevention of HIV/Aids, rabies, tuberculosis and diabetes, all of which remain significant health problems in Europe and the developing world.
A key goal of the project is to manage the necessary biosafety and regulatory requirements.
Pharma-Planta is the first initiative of this nature to be supported by the EU, and is leading the way in highlighting safety and regulatory aspects in the product development pipeline, from both the human and environmental perspectives.