Culture Broth: Quebec's high-tech plants
June 05, 2009— Montréal, Quebec
Picture a greenhouse half the size of a football field. Astonishing? Even more so, when you find out it is located deep inside the Parc technologique du Québec métropolitain. The leading edge greenhouse features thousands of tobacco plants that have become living factories producing vaccines to protect against H5N1 pandemic influenza.
Louis Vézina, at the time an employee of Agriculture Canada and an agrologist specializing in plant biochemistry and molecular biology, was interested in bioprocessing, which he felt was the wave of the future. His interest was such that in 1997, he joined François Arcand to create Medicago in order to develop a technology based on plants.
Why plants? There are thousands of proteins produced for commercial applications- from enzymes for industrial processes to therapeutic antibodies that generate billions of dollars in revenue. Traditionally, proteins have been produced using complex production systems such as cell culture, yeast, bacteria or eggs. However, the ability to produce proteins in plants has several major advantages. Plants are uniquely capable of efficient protein expression in larger quantities at very low costs.
To effectively respond to emerging diseases, the ability to rapidly produce vaccines or therapeutic antibodies in the face of an outbreak is critical. Medicago has developed the Proficia™ technology, a proprietary alternative to traditional egg-based and cell production systems. Using whole living plants as hosts, the Proficia™ technology is rapid, flexible, high yielding and a robust vaccine and antibody production system.
Fast production of vaccines and antibodies is a major advantage of this technology. Vaccine production can be initiated within three to four weeks of the identification of the genetic sequence from a seasonal or pandemic viral strain.
After a round of financing which raised $24 million, Medicago built its world class greenhouse: 1,400 square meters of space with equipment for biomass treatment and purification. This pilot plant meets the highest standards of the American and European pharmaceutical industry.
Right from the drafting of the business plan, the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) was interested in this project and saw in it potential for scientific knowledge and innovation. Indeed, using genetically modified tobacco to produce a human protein and extract it was brave and visionary.
NRC-IRAP's first task was to help the young company prepare its plan; the second was to assist in the negotiation of its license. An initial financial contribution in 2000 went to evaluate the viability of the technologies for converting vegetable material. This was followed in 2001 by a second contribution to develop those technologies.
From 2001 to 2004, NRC-IRAP supported the business in all of Medicago's laboratory operations and internal development through advice and networking. More than a mere financial link, a real relationship was established between the Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) and the company. "Our ITA had complete training in agronomy and understood very well the technology of processing plant material. It's a great advantage since we are not talking to financial administrators, but to scientists who understand the difficulties and possibilities of the technology."
In 2008, NRC-IRAP awarded Medicago a third contribution of up to $279,700 to support the Company's development of a seasonal influenza Virus-Like Particle (VLP) vaccine program. Today, Medicago is a well-established, publicly-traded company already positioned among the top three companies in the field globally. If Medicago continues, in partnership, to develop new generation vaccines aimed at fighting human diseases, the future path of the company will involve the manufacturing of its own products based on molecules of which they own the rights. A story to be followed!
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