Enhancing biopharming for an emerging bioeconomy

In the world of health and medicine, the word tobacco usually brings to mind cancer, emphysema and heart disease. But in recent years the plant’s tarnished reputation is getting a makeover from the development of pharmaceuticals through an effective, swift and cost-cutting technique that has been dubbed “biopharming.”

For more than seven years, the CSIR has been at the forefront of biopharming research and development (R&D) in South Africa and has active partnerships with global leaders in the field. Now, the CSIR’s antibody expression platform aims to enhance the organisation’s preparedness for hosting a national biopharming platform in support of an emerging South African bioeconomy. Consequently, the CSIR is poised to play a leadership role in support of the Department of Science and Technology’s new bioeconomy strategy.

According to Dr Tsepo Tsekoa, principal investigator of the antibody expression platform,”Technological development has resulted in plants increasingly becoming an attractive host for the recombinant production of proteins destined for agro-industrial, biomedical and pharmaceutical application. With the recent approval of a number of plant-produced biologics for human health use – and a strong pipeline in clinical trials – the concept of using plants as a source to produce recombinant vaccines and other biopharmaceutical proteins is now being realised. An example of this is the use of antibody-producing tobacco plants employed in the battle against rabies.”

Dr Tsepo Tsekoa

“Plant-based expression systems are relatively inexpensive, readily scalable and fast; leveraging a niche in vaccines for neglected diseases, pandemic vaccines or emerging disease vaccines where other means of production may be too slow to respond or too expensive for mass roll-out,” noted Tsekoa.

Over the next few years, the platform will develop biopharming-related human capital and strengthen state-of-the-art competence through research exchanges; evaluate recombinant vaccine manufacturing technologies for rapid response to pandemic influenza in South Africa; and complete a proof of concept for expression of highly active and broadly neutralising HIV antibodies in preparation for national roll-out in partnership with a large international consortium.

“In addition, the production of ‘biobetters’ – which refers to a recombinant protein drug that is in the same class as an existing biopharmaceutical but is improved over the original, is an attractive option, as plant expression systems have been shown to produce biopharmaceuticals free of human infective viruses, prions and bacterial contaminants such as endotoxins. The technology has the potential to become a commercially attractive and universally accepted approach for vaccine, therapeutic and reagent protein manufacturing,” said Tsekoa.

The CSIR has a sound track record when it comes to biopharming R&D. The organisation has produced vaccines such as RabiVir, a plant-made antibody cocktail for rabies prophylaxis, plant-made subunit animal vaccines as well as a pipeline of other veterinary vaccine production technologies, including virus-like particles.

Story by: Kulani Chauke, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research