BioPharma Greens Use Lettuce for Plant-Based Expression of Proteins for Vaccine & Drug Production

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    BioPharma Greens, Inc. is engineering plant-based expression systems to more affordably bring therapeutics to market. The St. Louis startup is located at BioGenerator Labs, as the company is supported by BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioSTL.

    “Think about cancer treatments or even vaccines that are out of reach for the average American. This is, in part, due to production costs,” said Thomas Brutnell, PhD, CEO of BioPharma Greens, Inc. “So, what we hope to do with BioPharma is use a robust platform to produce these drugs at a much lower cost.”

    There are many different expression systems scientists have been working on for decades.

    “But no one’s really focused on the plant side of things,” he explained.

    The company is focused on a couple different lettuce varieties for a particular protein.

    “Lettuce is a diploid. It has good genetics and it’s been bred for many, many years for humans,” said Brutnell. “We can eat lettuce, and so it’s a very safe organism to start with. And it’s got a very solid genetic platform to engineer.”

    BioPharma Greens’ method of plant engineering is focused on plant genetics to optimize the production of therapeutics.

    “We grow the plants, we use a process known as agroinfiltration. So, we introduce a bacterium that contains the gene we want into the leaf cells. That bacterium will introduce a gene into those plant cells and then it’ll co-op the plant cells to produce the protein that’s in the vector we give it,” Brutnell said. “So that means we can produce very large quantities of a single protein in every cell of the leaf that are transformed with that bacteria. We can go from our DNA template to having milligram quantities of protein in 3-5 days. So that’s a very rapid iteration.”

    After about five days, the BioPharma Greens team cuts off the lettuce leaves and uses an extraction protocol for purification of the protein.

    “We would grow to the scale of what we need for our particular therapeutic,” he said. “Right now, our lead candidate is a vaccine. We’re also looking at a protein that could be used in a diagnostic test and another protein that would be used as a monoclonal antibody therapy.”

    The type of diseases for the vaccine, drug therapy and diagnostic tool being developed or considered is currently confidential as the company is in the process of filing its intellectual property. As the research develops, the company plans to get the vaccine into a clinical trial. Brutnell calculates they would need about two heads of lettuce for the trial.

    “But if we’re using it for a growth hormone, for example, we may need close to an acre of material to produce that quantity lettuce.”

    The company is also considering other plant systems for production.

    “We can engineer the protein itself to express better in a plant system. It could be used to treat anything, any condition where a protein therapeutic is currently being used. This is a viable replacement production system.”