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DRUGS & PHARMACROPS: South African research group receives grant towork on GE pharma crops

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  DST grant grows plant biotechnology research
SOURCE: Engineering News, South Africa
AUTHOR: Chanel Pringle
DATE:   25.05.2007

DST grant grows plant biotechnology research

The plant biotechnology research group at the Council for Scientific and
Industrial Research (CSIR) has secured a multimillion-rand research
grant from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to extend
research into transgenic plants as a platform for the production of

Plant biotechnology research group leader Dr Rachel Chikwamba reports
that the substantial grant will assist the group in expanding its

"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

"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.

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