Thursday, June 09, 2005


The plant made pharmaceutical gnomes.

On of my most favorite episodes of South Park is the one involving the underpants gnomes. To get the uneducated up to speed: in this episode, Tweak, who we first meet, is plagued by little gnomes who continually steal his underpants. When Tweak finally follows the gnomes back to their lair, the real reason for their theivery is unocvered. It turns out that the underpants gnomes are running a business with a pretty simple business plan which is:

1) Steal Underpants

2) ?????

3) Profit

It seems as though they are having no problems with aquiring underpants, however, they are at a loss to what step two should be. They are sure, though, that step three is profit. Of course, this episode is a spoof of the glory days of the era, when businesses with no sensible business plans were being financed rightand left.

Unfortunately, there are some underpants gnomes to be found in the plant made pharmaceutical industry today. As this industry is very young, many of the leading companies are in the start-up stage. Several of these companies (and I am not going to name names because I may want to work for one of them in the near future) profess to have a great model system for production. In your research of these companies, you'll probably stumble across something along these lines:

"Company X is a leader in PMPs. Our system is based on proprietary technology using plant Y as a host system which we call the Z System. We have successfully used the Z system to produce three common, run-of-the-mill proteins that have no commercial applications.

"Well, these companies have part one down pat. And they will probably put out a few press releases like this:

"Company X has partnered with Big-Pharma A to develop products using their proprietary Z system"

Looks like they are still trying to find part two. For most of these companies, part three will probably never be realized. On the flip side, there are a couple of companies out there who have part two all worked out but need to figure out how to steal those underpants. These are the companies that have developed (or licensened) products that can be manufactured in plants but need to figure out the best way to manufacture them. There are also countless other small academic labs that have interesting products but have no idea how to manufacture it on a large scale, or the desire to. Unfortunately, there is not a single company yet who has put all three steps together. It will be interesting to see if there are some mergers or acquisitions made soon to put together a company with abetter business plan.

In my opinion, companies need to work on step two before beginning step one. A product must be found whose production in a plant system is advantageous. I think this product will probably be some form of an antibody. Large quantities must be needed, I still haven't figured out what will fit that bill, but most of the industry people seem to think it will be some form of vaccine. The protein also must be amenable to being produced in a plant system. A big hurdle in this area is the glycosylation factor (plants glycosylate proteins differently than other eukaryotic systems). As the industry stands right now, if it looks like glycosylation could cause a protein to be antigenic, I would stay away from that protein.

Once this miracle product is found, THEN the best way to go about manufacturing it (type of plant, expression system, etc ...) should beworked out. Will the underpants gnomes, I mean PMP gnomes ever make it to step three? Lets hope so.


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