Green medical factory
VTT’s research scientists involved in the four-year EU SmartCell project are engineering plant cells into cell factories that generate new lead molecules for the pharmaceutical industry. By engineering the metabolism of the plant cells, they can be directed to produce high-value pharmaceuticals.
A ‘green factory’ is green in two different ways: first, it helps produce pharmaceuticals from plants and second, it is one example of VTT’s ability to offer green or sustainable technologies. In addition to bio and chemical processes, VTT applies green technology solutions in material testing, emission control, water technology, ICT, electronics, energy, traffic and transport sectors, construction as well as industrial systems and equipment technology.
It is very demanding to isolate drug molecules from plants, because the desired compounds are produced in very small quantities. The same material also contains other compounds that are chemically closely related to the desired molecule. In the future, larger quantities of pharmaceutical compounds can be produced in cultivated plant cells in a controlled manner. This means that cancer drugs, for instance, can be produced at a lower cost and more effectively.
The SmartCell project team, which comprises of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and 13 European partners, focuses on unveiling the secret of the Madagascar Periwinkle, a plant native to Madagascar. The research makes use of plant biotechnology, system biology and approaches connected with biomolecule recognition.
The Madagascar Periwinkle contains vinkristine and vinblastine – two important compounds that are used to treat advanced breast cancer, small-cell lung cancer and leukaemia.
The challenge here lies in how to recognise the long biosynthesis routes that lead to the formation of the desired compound in plant cells. In addition, the genes that regulate the various intermediate stages must be identified. The gene transfer of the SmartCell project has reached an important step: a transformation method for as many as ten genes simultaneously is currently being developed.
In addition, the long growth period of plant cells in comparison, for example, to that of antibiotics-generating microbes, is largely a technological challenge. Plant cells maintain their valuable compounds intracellularly for a long time. The focus of the SmartCell project is on investigating transporter genes; with the help of such genes, desiredcompounds could be pumped out of the cells as early as during the plant’s cultivation. This would facilitate and speed up the actual process.
VTT has been assigning significant resources to medical biotechnology research for about eight years. Now the aim is to move from academic research to commercial applications and receive industrial assignments. VTT recently concluded a cooperation agreement with Bayer Schering Pharma to develop cancer medication.
VTT has for a long time considered the development of green or sustainable technologies a central objective in all its projects. The first major integrated action was the Clean world theme programme, implemented during the years 2002 - 2006. The theme aimed at developing sustainable technologies for advancing the use of renewable energy sources, more efficient use of raw materials, and reduction of greenhouse gases. Since then, an increasing number of projects and co-operative programmes have contributed to the understanding of green processes and solutions.
In addition to bio and chemical processes, VTT develops and offers green technology solutions for material testing, emission control, water technology, ICT, electronics, energy, traffic and transport sectors, construction as well as industrial systems and equipment technology.
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