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.

Garden Fresh Farms uses Indoor Aquaponic System to Sustainably Farm in Minnesota all Year Long

Maplewood-based Garden Fresh Farms provides a disruptive solution to conventional farming.  Their unique system allows for sustainable, year-long, indoor farming, providing 24-hour fresh food to consumers regardless of location.

I had to opportunity to learn about Garden Fresh Farms and spin off company MNPHARM from Founder Dave Roeser at the Worthington Bio Science Conference a few weeks ago.  Garden Fresh Farms uses a novel, aquaponic system to grow produce.  In this system, both plants and fish are grown in a symbiotic water system.  The fish naturally create waste products, or fertilizer, which is pumped through the Garden Fresh closed system to the plants.  The plants use the fertilizer to grow and in turn also purify the water.  The cleaned water is then pumped back to the fish holding tanks, completing the loop.

Garden Fresh Farms uses aquaponics to grow produce through two different systems.  The first is a vertical system, where plants are grown on densely packed shelving straight up into the air.  These indoor farmers also grow plants in orbiting gardens- large eight by four foot rotating drums.  Currently, Garden Fresh Farms grows lettuce and herbs using these systems but is looking to expand in the near future.

The Garden Fresh farming methods use far less resources than traditional outdoor methods.  The plants are grown at much higher density than is possible with normal agriculture.  The vertical growth shelving units are packed tightly together, allowing four shelves to obtain light from one fixture.  The orbiting gardens can also be stacked nine feet high.  These features allow plants to be grown at very high density; Garden Fresh Farms can grow an equivalent one hundred acres of crop in a one square acre building.

Garden Fresh Farm’s disruptive growing structure minimizes the amount of resources needed for plant growth.  Their system uses 90% less water and 50% less energy than traditional outdoor farming methods.

It’s no secret.  Winter is a rough time in Minnesota to find good, fresh produce.  The food is often overripe and looks like it’s been there all week.  However, if you stumble upon Garden Fresh Farms produce in your local Lunds & Byerlys or Kowalski’s, the produce will be extremely fresh, even in January.  Twenty-four hours fresh to be exact.

Often the problem with produce distribution is getting the food that very last mile to the consumer.  Farms are often in rural areas, far from dense concentrations of people.  With the Garden Fresh Farms system, produce can be grown anywhere.  Right now, the company grows food in a warehouse in Saint Paul.  They can harvest their product in the morning, send it off to a distribution center by noon, and have the food on the shelves the very next day.  This whole process reduces food spoilage and waste and increases the nutritional value of the food.

The indoor growth system also means that all Garden Fresh Farms products are pesticide-free, a huge bonus for many consumers.

Garden Fresh Farms not only provides local, fresh food.  The company also has a deep-rooted social component. 

Garden Fresh Farms provides year-long farming jobs.  A total of twenty-five jobs would be created by converting one pole barn into a Garden Fresh Farms indoor growth facility.  The company has their very first public-private partnership in the works to begin in June 2016 in New England.  Garden Fresh Farms will convert an old, unused building into a farming factory, providing the over 30M people within a 100-mile radius of that site with local, fresh produce.  And jobs.

Garden Fresh Farms is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.  Consumers can buy produce directly from the company to support local farmers.  In Garden Fresh Farm’s program, consumers sign up for 12-week increments and receive weekly bags of fresh produce plus recipe ideas.  The bags can be dropped off at several locations around the Twin Cities area. 

The benefits of the Garden Fresh Farms system don’t stop there.  The company’s unique produce growing process could actually help fight climate change.

Plants need carbon dioxide to grow.  Plants use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis- the process by which green plants convert sunlight into chemical energy which is used to power cellular functions.  Plants store the chemical energy generated during this process as the carbohydrate glucose, which later can be converted into the essential cellular fuel ATP.

Plants love carbon dioxide.  But we humans usually think of the substance in a negative manner.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and makes up the largest percentage of all greenhouse gas emissions.  Excessive carbon dioxide production alters Earth’s normal carbon cycle and adds the heat trapping gas to the atmosphere, contributing to the gradually warming planet.

During photosynthesis, green plants use light and water to make their own food from carbon dioxide.  Plants use up the carbon and release oxygen at the end of the process, sequestering something that we don’t want and transforming it into something useful.

Farms are usually in rural areas, often very close to ethanol plants which produce carbon dioxide byproducts, something the Earth definitely does not want.  However, with the Garden Fresh Farms system, this carbon dioxide byproduct could be pumped to the indoor farms and sequestered by the growing produce through photosynthesis.  The plants could actually be used to “recycle” these carbon dioxide byproducts and convert it to something more useful for us all- food.

Garden Fresh Farm’s disruptive technology has earned them several awards and national recognition.  The group won the 2013 MN Cup Clean Tech and Energy Division and also won the Midwest Regional Clean Tech Open Competition and National Clean Tech Open Global Forum that same year.  In 2014, the company earned a Progress Minnesota Award, Eureka! Award, Green Products award from Saint Paul, and Sustainability Award from the City of Maplewood.

Two years ago, Garden Fresh Farms developed and launched a company called MNPHARM using the same aquaponics technology.  Check back later when we talk about MNPHARM and the potential to use tobacco plants as individualized medicine platforms.