Using common crops and other plants to generate molecules used for therapeutic procedures is not a new idea. For instance, thanks to a novel mutation that switches off its immune system, a tobacco plant native to Australia has since been engineered to produce everything from flu and polio vaccines to human anti-inflammatory proteins.
Now, researchers from the John Innes Centre (JIC) in the UK have used the same basic approach to turn tomatoes into medicine-producing biofactories. The reason for choosing this particular plant is that it can be easily grown in most parts of the world, thereby providing a cheap and easy way to obtain essential medicines that may otherwise be difficult to come by in certain regions.
“The idea is that you can grow tomatoes with relatively little infrastructure. As GMOs (genetically modified organisms) you could grow them in screen houses, controlled environments with very narrow meshes, so you would not have pollen escape through insects. Then you could scale up at relatively low cost,” said Cathie Martin of JIC.
In this particular instance, the researchers engineered tomatoes to produce L-DOPA – a vital Parkinson’s medicine. According to Martin, a local industry could easily extract and purify the medicine from the produce using low-tech methods, and then distribute it to those who live in the surrounding area.
As suggested by the study, 150 mg of L-DOPA can be obtained from approximately 1 kg of tomatoes. Furthermore, the authors speculate that producing the medicine in this manner could reduce the negative side effects that some people experience while taking its chemically synthesised version.
“Additionally, there were surprising beneficial effects including improvement in shelf-life and raised levels of amino-acids that we can investigate. It’s a further demonstration of tomato as a strong option for synthetic biology,” said first author on the study Dario Breitel.
While the research is still on-going, further advancements could eventually drive down the price of different medications and help developing countries to get a hold of pharmaceutical technologies needed to ensure the health and well-being of their populations.
The proof-of-concept study was published in the journal Metabolic Engineering.