PlantForm Corporation has patented a plant-based manufacturing system for a wide range of pharmaceuticals, including antibodies, therapeutic proteins, and vaccines to treat cancer, HIV/AIDS, Ebola virus, arthritis, Crohn's and more. The manufacturing system is based on biopharming, a complex technology that requires workers with a superior scientific skillset. Fortunately, Ontario has such talent in abundance.

What is biopharming?

Biopharming refers to the use of genetically engineered plants to produce a wide range of pharmaceuticals and industrial products that are commonly known as "biologics," since they are derived from living organisms. PlantForm's molecular farming platform is licensed from the University of Guelph, where it was originally developed, and the company has labs in Guelph, plus offices in Toronto, Sarnia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The positive side of tobacco

PlantForm's vivoXPRESS® biopharming system uses a particular strain of leafy tobacco plant, permeated with bacteria that contain the genes needed to produce the desired drug. Unlike the type grown for smoking, these tobacco plants are far smaller and grow well indoors. They are ideal for the job, says PlantForm president and CEO Don Stewart, because they provide "a large amount of leaf on a small footprint" so the company can maximize production.

Plants as bioreactors

Because production costs are approximately one-tenth those of mammalian-cell fermentation systems, PlantForm's technology is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the growing global demand for affordable biologics. "Essentially, we're using plants as bioreactors, so it's comparatively cheap," says Stewart.

In addition to lower costs, PlantForm's process offers substantial benefits over mammalian- and bacterial-cell fermentation systems:

  • faster development
  • more versatility
  • potentially unlimited scale-up capability
Don Stewart
Don Stewart, President and CEO, PlantForm Corp.

A strong talent and technology base

The province has come through with access to talent, says Stewart. When PlantForm established its research facility in Guelph, it had no trouble attracting qualified staff from the surrounding areas. "There's a strong talent and technology base here and the province is helping us exploit that."

Stewart has also been impressed by the MaRS Discovery District, and appreciates the unparalleled access to knowledge, expertise, mentoring and training. "Ontario has a long-term supportive view of advanced manufacturing, so we're a good mesh for its objectives. The province is doing everything it can to help us."

$100 million in sales by 2020

Plants as bioreactors
After the tobacco plants are permeated with the genetic material for a target antibody, they grow for another week, producing antibodies in each cell. The plants are then harvested, and the protein material extracted and purified to make an injectable drug.

PlantForm has raised about $16 million in equity, contracts and grants. Stewart says securing its first significant investor, UK-based Atlantic Asset Trust, was a major milestone. Now the company is seeking $35 million in additional financing to bring its first drug candidate, biosimilar trastuzumab (Herceptin®)—a breast cancer treatment—into clinical trials.

The company plans to start selling Herceptin® in Europe in 2020, followed closely by Canada and then the United States. It expects to be making $100 million in sales by 2020-2021.

Next in the pipeline will be an antidote to ricin, part of the company's program on bioterrorism countermeasures. Defense Research and Development Canada developed the drug and has teamed up with PlantForm to manufacture and commercialize it. Stewart says he has no doubt it will be the best-in-class drug (for that purpose) in the world.

PlantForm's third major program is the development of biosimilar adalimumab (Humira®), used in arthritis and Crohn's disease. It is being developed as a joint venture with Axis Biotec Brasil.

From Ontario to the world

Stewart says his company is scouting the Mississauga area, west of Toronto, to build a $15- to $20-million facility. Part of the reason he likes the area is that it's home to many major pharmaceutical firms, and he'll have ready access to talent.

Stewart says it's exciting to lead a firm that is commercializing an Ontario-based technology and bringing it to world markets. "The technology we've licensed and further developed has attracted international interest, from Brazil to China," says Stewart. "We're using Ontario's knowledge base and expertise to create a company that will address world needs."

Sector/subsector: 

August 9, 2016

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