Bioagriculture Startup MNPHARM Develops Plant-Based Individualized Cancer Treatment

Imagine seeing an individualized medicine treatment grow right before your eyes.  Dave Roeser and MNPHARM want to make that happen.  Using indoor agriculture technology developed in sister company Garden Fresh Farms, MNPHARM harnesses the power of plants to produce personalized immunotherapy treatments.  The emerging company uses genetically modified tobacco plants to generate plantibodies- or plant-based drugs- and is well positioned to make strides in the rapidly developing plant biologics market.

Vaccines are powerful public health tools that protect the body from infection, prevent the spread of disease, and train the immune system to home in and destroy antigens.  White blood cells play a major role in the immune response.  Specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes are the main cell types responsible for acquired immunity, where the body recognizes and “remembers” foreign antigens- proteins present on the cell surface that can elicit an immune response.  After exposure to certain antigens, B lymphocytes produce and secrete specialized proteins called antibodies.  These antibodies can bind to the antigens, leading to eventual cell destruction.

Antigens help the body recognize its own cells from infectious microbes or damaged and diseased cells.  After exposure to “non-self” antigens on foreign microbes, the immune system develops memory toward these infectious particles, quickly shutting down potential infection if the microbe should re-enter the body.  Most vaccines are composed of weakened or dead microbes, which introduce these “non-self” antigens to the immune system, allowing B lymphocytes to mass produce antibodies specific to those infectious microbes and protect the body against future infections. 

Conventional vaccines are produced from chicken eggs; a typical vaccine manufacturing company burns through about $600,000 of chicken eggs in a single day.  This type of vaccine development takes about six months, a slow process that allows little flexibility to pivot production if the infectious viral strain mutates and hampers the ability to address key public health issues in a timely manner.

MNPHARM uses a disruptive approach to generate plantibodies, or plant-based vaccines.  Instead of chicken eggs, MNPHARM uses tobacco plants as vaccine-production factories.  MNPHARM’s plantibody approach leads to a much faster, cheaper, and safer vaccine production than conventional methods.  This method uses no animal products, eliminating the risk of microbial contamination in the final product.  Most important, the plantibody vaccines are generated in only six days, not six months.

MNPHARM’s plantibodies are produced in small batches by design, making them perfect to treat rare diseases.  Plantibodies may play a vital role in the individualized medicine space and MNPHARM is well positioned to break into the cancer vaccine market with this technology.

Immunotherapy- medicinal treatments that boost the power of the immune system- is a very active area of cancer research.  Unlike preventative vaccines which stop a disease from ever appearing, therapeutic vaccines attack a disease while it’s occurring.  Cancer therapeutic vaccines can target and destroy tumor cells and even prevent cancer recurrence.  These vaccines can stimulate the body’s immune system to detect, home in, and extinguish cancer cells already present in the patient.

Cancer cells by definition are foreign substances that are recognized by the immune system through a couple different mechanisms.  These cells can present higher levels of “self” antigens than healthy cells, have antigens on their cell surface which are not normally found in that specific tissue, and can present novel antigens from gene mutations.

Dave Roeser and colleagues developed innovative, disruptive technology to grow plants indoors in a cheaper, resource-efficient manner at Garden Fresh Farms.  But they always dreamed of using the technology for cancer treatment.  MNPHARM uses the same rotating garden technology already proven in Garden Fresh Farms to grow their tobacco plants and produce plant-based medicine in Minnesota all year long.     

The whole process starts with bacteria and a little bit of molecular cloning.  With MNPHARM technology, a tumor sample is taken from a cancer patient and processed using the MNPHARM biopsy kit.  DNA specific to the cancer cell is isolated, which codes for cancer-specific antigens.  The DNA is spliced into a cloning vector- a piece of circular double-stranded DNA that does not insert into the bacterial genome and synthesizes its DNA independently from the bacterium’s own genetic material.  The tobacco plants are infiltrated with the bacteria and the plant synthesizes the cancer antigen from the vector-containing DNA.  After just six days, the tobacco leaves are ground up and the antigens extracted and purified to get the final plantibody product.  This individualized plantibody can be used to treat patients and hopefully elicit a strong enough immune response to kill the cancer cells presenting that specific antigen.

MNPHARM is currently in collaboration with Mayo Clinic to further develop these plant-based individualized medicinal treatments.  How amazing would it be to walk through the Mayo buildings and see 8x4 foot rotating drums of tobacco plants, synthesizing your own personalized medicine?  In less than one week a patient could visit the clinic, have a biopsy taken, and receive specialized treatment, a process not possible without this disruptive technology. 

Business is on the upward trajectory for MNPHARM.  The company competed proof of concept of their technology in December 2015.  They are scaling up a vaccine-production facility in Maplewood and hope to eventually set up shop in Rochester.