Pharm Food

If you hate getting vaccinations or swallowing pills, a new method called “biopharming” may solve your problem.  Biopharming creates plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMP) that “enable[] them to produce therapeutic proteins that could ultimately be used by the medical community to combat life-threatening illnesses.”[1] The PMP can produce drugs for treating illnesses such as cancer, HIV, heart disease, crohn’s disease, diarrhea, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes.[2]  Scientists can now insert pharmaceuticals into the cells of plants using Recombinant DNA technology.

Vaccines against cholera, the noroovirus, E. coli and hepatitis B, are being developed so that they can be administered using bananas and potatoes.[3]  The human immune response is triggered when a raw banana or potato is ingested that contains a vaccine.[4]   These edible vaccines offer developing countries an easier way to distribute vaccinations that do not require refrigeration to preserve.  Once research has been completed on the edible vaccinations, the crops can be grown according to demand and purchased at a much lower price than traditional vaccines.

In addition, there are financial benefits to producing PMP.  Maintenance costs for producing PMP are low, and biotechnology companies require small initial investments to create the vaccinations.  In contrast, conventional methods of producing drugs are time consuming and costly.  The traditional drugs are synthesized from animal cell cultures that are carefully grown inside of “bioreactors.”[5]  The future demand for drugs synthesized in the bioreactors may be too much for the current pharmaceutical industry to handle.

Opponents of biopharmed crops worry about the risk that biopharmed crops will mix with crops grown for human consumption.[6]  Regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) currently oversee the field trials of biopharmed crops.  This regulation helps reduce the likelihood of cross-pollination.[7]

Some critics speculate that patent protection will negatively impact the delivery and use of biopharmed crops in developing countries.  This is why it is extremely important for biotechnology companies to receive public or nonprofit funding.[8]  Even though biotechnology companies protect their products with patents, additional funding can help these companies provide developing countries with edible vaccines at a low-cost.  For example, the Pharma-Planta project “is a consortium of 39 research groups from academic and industrial institutions in Europe and South Africa.”[9]  The scientists have signed a “Statement of Intent on Humanitarian Use,” which basically states that developing countries will directly benefit from the molecular farming research.  Measures are currently being taken to ensure that developing countries can have affordable access to the edible vaccines.

Pharmaceutical products from plants are not yet available for consumer consumption.  However, if PMP can help to provide treatments for diseases such as cancer and HIV, research and field trials should continue to be conducted.  The World Health Organization estimated that 1.4 million deaths among children under five-years old could have been prevented by vaccination.[10]  This number is unlikely to decrease without a novel way of producing more readily available vaccinations, and biopharming may prove to be the light at the end of the tunnel.


[1] Terry Witt & Sean Darragh, Biotechnology Industry Organization Oregon Draft Policy Recommendations for Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals, (Sept. 26, 2006), http://www.bio.org/advocacy/letters/oregon-draft-policy-recommendations-plant-made-pharmaceuticals-0.

[2] Thomas P. Redick, Biopharming, Biosafety, and Billion Dollar Debacles: Preventing Liability From Biotech Crops 8 Drake J. Agric. L. 115, 118 (2003)

[3] BioBytes: Biotechnology and Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals, Biotechnology Industry Organization, http://www.bio.org/media/biobytes-biotechnology-and-plant-made-pharmaceuticals (last visited Feb. 22, 2012).

[4] Margaux Birdsall, Biopharming, Bananas and Bureaucracy: The Banana Vaccine as a Case Study for Products that Straddle the Definitional Food/Drug Divide 66 Food Drug L.J. 265, 277. (2011).

[5] Conference Report, Pharming the Field: A look at the Benefits and Risks of Bioengineering Plaints to Produce Pharmaceuticals, http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/ Reports/Food_and_Biotechnology/PIFB_Pharming_Fields.pdf.

[6] Andrew Pollack, Vaccine Delivered by Fork, Not Needle, N.Y. Times, May 14, 2000, at 1.

[7] Rowena C. Seto, Selling the Pharm: The Risks, Benefits, and Regulation of Biopharmaceuticals, 27 Environs Envtl. L. & Pol’y J. 443, 458 (2004).

[8] Plant Made Pharmaceuticals, Drug Discovery and Development (Sept. 6, 2007, 6:05 AM), http://www.dddmag.com/articles/2007/09/plant-made-pharmaceuticals.

[9] Plant Made Pharmaceuticals, supra note 8.

[10] Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/immunization_monitoring/diseases/en/ (last visited Feb. 22, 2012).

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