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Companies Partner on Fast Production of Biologics in Plants

Flowering Nicotiana benthamiana plant

Flowering Nicotiana benthamiana plant (Charles Andres, Wikimedia Commons.

1 Aug. 2023. The developer of a biologic drug-making process with engineered plant crops is collaborating with a vertical farming company to create a network of biologics production facilities. KBio, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco or BAT founded last year in Owensboro, Kentucky, is partnering with Zero Farms, a company in Italy seeking to make vertical farming more modular, scalable, economically viable, and sustainable.

KBio was formed to advance research by BAT in biotechnology, particularly production of synthetic antibodies and other biologic drugs. That research centered on harnessing properties of plants in the tobacco family to quickly and economically produce monoclonal antibodies, highly targeted synthetic proteins for vaccines and therapeutics. KBio says its process identifies and clones genes coding for specific monoclonal antibodies or other proteins to genetically engineer bacteria that infiltrate plants.

Plant species are submerged under vacuum pressure with the engineered bacteria to speed infiltration, where the plants incubate the bacteria for expressing the designed proteins contained in plant cells and tissue. The infected plants, says the company, are then exposed to tobacco mosaic viruses, normally a tobacco plant pest, but in this case used to extract monoclonal antibodies or other proteins from plant material. KBio says the protein outputs from plants are purified and subjected to rigorous testing required by Good Manufacturing Practices or GMP quality standards for drug manufacturing.

BAT researchers demonstrated this process in a paper published in June 2021 the journal Methods in Enzymology. The BAT team created and produced monoclonal antibodies meeting GMP standards in as little as 10 days, with Nicotiana benthamiana plants, a relative of tobacco native to Australia, and a model species for lab research in genetics and viral transmission. KBio says its process can produce GMP-quality monoclonal antibodies in about two weeks after infiltrating plants with engineered bacteria.

Modular design and extensive automation

Zero Farms is a five year-old enterprise near Venice that aims to make vertical farming, producing food crops and other plants in stacked greenhouse-like urban spaces, economically viable and sustainable. Up to now, says Zero Farms, vertical farming was considered an admirable goal, but lacking an economical means of producing plant crops quickly and inexpensively. In addition, says the company, most vertical farms use unique designs and are labor-intensive, making them difficult to attract financing for business growth.

To meet this challenge, Zero Farms says it started from scratch — or zero, the source of its name — to create growing centers with a basic modular design and extensive automation. The company’s software includes a cloud-based management package with algorithms derived from farmers, agronomists, and engineers that Zero Farms says makes it possible to economically operate a network of geographically distributed vertical farming facilities.

KBio and Zero Farms say they plan to establish a network of vertical farms for producing biologics and other bio-based materials with Nicotiana benthamiana plants. The companies say their proposed network could provide public health authorities with a means of quickly producing vaccines and therapeutics for responding to future pandemics. In addition, new modular growing facilities could be quickly deployed in emergencies.

“We plan to facilitate joint R&D activities with Zero,” says KBio CEO Patrick Doyle in a company statement released through Globe Newswire, “in the United States, U.K., and Italy that will involve the production of monoclonal antibodies, vaccines and various bio-industrial products with B2B applications in the food, nutraceutical, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical sectors.”

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