Native tobacco plants reborn as ‘biofactories’ to grow medicines

1 June 2023

Researchers at IMB have shown Australian tobacco plants could be used as ‘biofactories’ to manufacture medicines on a large scale.

Professor David Craik and Dr Mark Jackson have demonstrated native wild tobacco, Nicotiana benthamiana, can potentially produce large quantities of drugs, cheaper and more sustainably than industrial manufacturing methods.

It is the latest study in a 10-year IMB endeavour to make growing medicines in plants a reality.

Instructing plants to grow medicines

“We are using the natural ability of plants to produce cyclotides – strings of amino acids in a circular shape – which makes them very stable and suitable as oral drugs,” Professor Craik said.

“Using modern molecular biology techniques, we can effectively instruct the plant cell to produce the molecule of interest.

“The wild tobacco leaves are then harvested, freeze-dried and the molecule is processed to be turned into oral medication.”

Scaling up production sustainably

Mark Jackson and David Craik in lab
Dr Mark Jackson and Professor David Craik

Dr Jackson said traditional large-scale manufacturing of pharmaceuticals is expensive and often uses harsh chemicals, generating a great deal of waste.

“Harnessing plants as ‘biofactories’ is more cost effective as it uses fewer resources and is less wasteful, with a much simpler production process,” Dr Jackson said.

“This method can also scale up very sustainably – using just light, water and nutrients.”

Growing a drug for multiple sclerosis

The researchers grew the drug T20K, which is currently in phase 1 clinical trials to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), a devastating autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system.

multiple pills of different colours and shapes
The plant 'biofactory' provides a platform for growing other medications.

Professor Craik said T20K is the first cyclotide drug that has progressed to clinical trials, but he is hopeful more will follow and reach the market.

“We have shown it is possible to scale up production of cyclotides in plants, providing a platform for growing other medications for pain, cancer or obesity,” Professor Craik said.

Building capacity for biomanufacturing

“There is also an opportunity to build capacity for biomanufacturing in Australia with advances in vertical farming – where we can easily have a controlled environment to grow the plants.”

The work has been made possible by a donation from the Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Foundation in 2015.

The drug T20K is being developed by biotech company Cyxone.

The Chair of Cyxone’s Scientific Advisory Board and co-inventor Professor Christian Gruber was Professor Craik’s PhD student and a University of Queensland alum.

The study was published in Transgenic Research.