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21/07-11   -   Press releases

First approval for production of an anti-HIV antibody in plants

UK regulators have approved Europe’s first clinical trial of an antibody produced from genetically modified (GM) plants. Taking place at the University of Surrey, this is the result of a landmark decision setting the stage for the testing in humans of an anti-HIV product made from modified tobacco plants. It will open the door for trials of additional plant-derived medicines treating a range of diseases.

The trial will test the safety of a plant-derived antibody designed to stop the transmission of HIV between sexual partners when applied directly to the vaginal cavity. If proven safe in the 11 participants, the researchers can then go on to test the effectiveness of the product.

Speaking on Tuesday (19 July 2011) at a press conference in London to announce the start of the trial, Dr Julia Boyle Director of the Surrey Clinical Research Centre – part of the University of Surrey - commented: “The first in human trial is now underway with 11 participants at Surrey. We expect the preliminary results to be available in mid-October, and clearly this is an exciting development which should hopefully pave the way for future trials of this nature."

The trial marks the culmination of the EU Framework 6 Pharma-Planta project, which was launched by a consortium of 30 academic and industrial partners in 2004 with €12 million in funding from the European Union. The primary goal was to develop an approved manufacturing process for an antibody made in plants, and take one such product through all the development stages including the pivotal clinical trial.

Most biopharmaceutical products such as this antibody are currently made at great expense in fermentation vats containing bacteria or mammal cells. However, the mass production of medicines in modified plants could reduce costs and therefore make an important contribution to global health, by improving access for the poor in developing countries where diseases such as HIV are a huge problem. In addition, the simple manufacturing process could be transferred to developing countries allowing production in the region for the region.

The approval granted by the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is a significant step forward because it means a plant-based production system can comply with current Good Manufacturing Practice, the strict standards used in the industry to ensure medicine quality and consistency.

Professor Julian Ma, scientific coordinator for Pharma-Planta and professor of molecular immunology at St George’s, University of London, said: “This is a red letter day for the field. The approval from the MHRA for us to proceed with human trials is an acknowledgement that monoclonal antibodies can be made in plants to the same quality as those made using existing conventional production systems. That is something many people did not believe could not be achieved."

The clinical trial will test a topically-applied anti-HIV microbicide. The active ingredient in the microbicide is a monoclonal antibody called P2G12. Monoclonal antibodies are complex proteins, originally derived from the body’s immune system but in this case made in the plants, to combat diseases such as infections and cancer. If successful, the investigators envisage that P2G12 will be used in combination with other HIV-neutralising antibodies, also produced in plants, to create a broadly protective vaginal microbicide product.

The team at the Surrey Clinical Research Centre – which is phase 1-accredited and has broad experience in complex and intensive physiological monitoring studies – worked alongside Professor Ma and Professor David Lewis at St George’s to design, coordinate and conduct the trial of P2G12.

The GM tobacco plants producing P2G12 were grown in state-of-the-art containment greenhouses at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) in Aachen, Germany, and the antibody was isolated and purified in a custom-designed processing plant on the same site, the first of its kind to be granted a license to manufacture recombinant pharmaceutical products from plants in Europe.

Professor Rainer Fischer, Pharma-Planta coordinator and Fraunhofer IME Director, said: “We now have a facility in Europe for producing modern medicines in transgenic plants that is unique in the world, although this has taken many years and much investment to establish. This approval is a springboard for European plant biotechnology and will enable many important medical products to be realised."

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