Research award to fund plant-grown drugs

29 Sep 2009

Cancer drugs may soon grow on trees if a University of Queensland researcher has his way. 

Dr Josh Mylne from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) at UQ was last week presented with a UQ Research Excellence Award to fund his work into using plants to produce pharmaceuticals. 

Dr Mylne has discovered a new type of natural machinery in sunflowers that can be used to manufacture small circular proteins for use as therapeutic drugs. 

Small proteins (peptides) can target cancer-causing enzymes with pinpoint precision, but they are costly to manufacture and are susceptible to breakdown. 

“Circular peptides produced in plants solve both these problems,” Dr Mylne said. 

“Because of their unusual structure, circular peptides are ultrastable, so they can last a lot longer in biological fluids and have greater effect. 

“Using the machinery of plants to produce these peptides will allow us to manufacture a high volume at low cost.” 

Dr Mylne already has a peptide in mind for plant production, one that targets an enzyme involved in prostate cancer. 

“This cancer is underestimated as a disease,” Dr Mylne said. 

“It kills more men than breast cancer kills women and it is the most common cancer in the USA. 

“Like breast cancer, mortality for prostate cancer is most easily reduced by early intervention and screening programs, however drugs to treat advanced cases are still lacking.” 

The funds from the Research Excellence Award will allow Dr Mylne to take the next steps towards proof of concept for developing plant-based drugs, and to begin testing them. 

IMB's Director, Professor Brandon Wainwright, congratulated Dr Mylne on his award and predicted it would open a new field of research, both at the IMB and beyond. 

“Several groups at IMB have the desire, but not the technical familiarity, to genetically engineer plants for other applications in drug production and biological pesticides,” Professor Wainwright said. 

“Enabling Josh to establish this program will thus have important knock-on effects for these other groups at IMB, and indeed for scientists worldwide. 

“This project fits squarely within IMB's mission to take excellent, creative science and turn it into commercial and medical outcomes.” 

Media: Dr Mylne (07 3346 2021) or Bronwyn Adams at the IMB (07 3346 2134 and 0418 575 247).