Sunday, April 22, 2012
Company is already growing other medicinal plants in mine
By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
April 22, 2012
WHITE PINE — In a brightly lit chamber 250 feet below the earth’s surface, where hard-rock miners once blasted for copper, no marijuana is growing, but two other types of plants are.
SubTerra is using genetically modified forms of a legume called tarwi and a tuber called oca to produce an enzyme needed to fight Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, commonly known as bubble boy disease.
If successful, physicians say the research could mark significant advances in treatment for a disease that affects about one in every 100,000 births.
Children born with SCID have immune systems so compromised that some must live behind plastic to protect them from germs.
The disease takes several forms. The second most common type results from a genetic defect that results in too little of a germ-fighting enzyme called adenosine deaminase, or ADA.
The tightly controlled chamber in the former White Pine Mine — where the tarwi and oca grow — is lit by 64 specially designed 1,000-watt bulbs and serviced by an automated system for delivering water and nutrients. The two types of plants have been modified to produce the human form of ADA.
“Plants … can be turned into manufacturing facilities,” said Brent Zettl, president and CEO of SubTerra’s parent company, Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“We can design the plants to make these enzymes for a therapeutic purpose.”
Dr. Donald Kohn, a professor of microbiology and pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, is an expert on SCID. He said SubTerra’s research, if successful, could address two major problems with the enzyme-replacement therapy used today.
The first is the expense, Kohn said. The treatment costs about $250,000 per patient, per year.
The other problem is the current bovine source of ADA carries some risk to the patient related to mad cow disease, he said.
“It would be great if they can do it,” said Kohn, who was not familiar with SubTerra’s work but is familiar with the state of SCID research in general.
Dr. Anthony Jevnikar, president and CEO of the plant-based pharmaceutical company Plantigen and co-director of the multiorgan transplant program at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, said plants can be excellent producers of medicine because they are nontoxic and free of viruses that can be found in animal sources.
A mine is an excellent location for plant-based work because it is biologically and genetically isolated and secure, said Jevnikar, who has worked with Prairie Plant Systems in Canada.
Zettl said his ADA work received some initial grants from the Canadian government but has been largely funded by his company. He said he is working on starting preclinical trials on fish or mice through Canadian and U.S. universities and the product could be tested on human patients in two to three years.