Agriculture is North Carolina’s oldest and still its largest industry, and it could get even bigger with the help of one of the state’s newer industries — biotechnology.
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center is spearheading an effort to grow the state’s agricultural industry from about $70 billion now to $100 billion by 2020 by linking traditional agriculture to biotechnology. Biotechnology advances that boost crop yields and improve drought tolerance are well under way. But agbiotech research is also finding pharmaceutical applications, particularly for targeted drug delivery.
Enzymes giant Novozymes isn’t an agricultural company, but its enzymes are used by companies that work with plants. Enzyme production for biofuel applications, for example, represents one of the growing areas of business the Danish company, which has its U.S. headquarters in Franklinton, North Carolina.
The vast majority of Novozymes $2 billion in annual revenue comes from its enzymes business. But the company also works with microorganisms and biopharmaceutical ingredients. Biobusiness comprises about 10 percent of Novozymes business. Novozymes’ work with proteins can affect a receptor’s affinity for certain compounds. Sandra Merkel-DeJames, Novozymes manager, business creation, biobusiness development and acquisitions, said that that capability has both agricultural and pharmaceutical applications. She added that at the nanoscale, agricultural goals and pharmaceutical goals are not that different. For example,the goal of reducing toxicity of a chemical for plants is like minimizing the side effect of a drug in humans.
“We say the same thing, we just use different words,” she said.
Merkel-DeJames spoke Thursday in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina at the Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology round table event “Lessons from a Farmer for Pharma: Targeted Delivery Solutions.” Here’s a sampling of some other North Carolina companies whose work spans the farm and pharma worlds.
PharmAgra Labs. Broccoli really is good for you — as a tool to fight cancer. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli have a molecule believed to have cancer preventative benefits. But the molecule, sulforaphane, is too unstable to be used in pharmaceuticals, said Roger Frisbee, co-president of Brevard, North Carolina-based PharmAgra. PharmAgra has developed a stabilized form of the molecule and the company has licensed its technology to British drug company Evgen, which hopes to use PharmaAgra’s technology to develop a number of new drugs. Evgen’s first target is prostate cancer.
Piedmont Pharmaceuticals. Any pet owner can tell you that administering pills to animals is not easy. If they find the taste or smell unpleasant, they won’t swallow it. Pharmacuetical companies have been working for years to find ways to make medicines more acceptable to animals. Piedmont Pharmaceuticals in Greensboro, North Carolina has developed a novel soft chew drug delivery platform. Eric Barnett, executive vice president of Piedmont, said the technology allows for the development of medicine that is not only chewable but also palatable: “It tastes as good as a treat you get at PetSmart, but it’s got medicine in it,” he said. Barnett said the market of solid dose drugs for pets totals $1.1 billion. Piedmont’s technology could reach all of it.
“We believe the launch of a soft chew product could be the launch of a blockbuster brand,” Barnett said.
NanoVector. A number of companies are working with nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery. Raleigh, North Carolina-based NanoVector makes those particles with tobacco plants. NanoVector infects tobacco plants with a plant virus, which causes them to produce nanoparticles. NanoVector’s nanoparticle is a plant virus, which can be harvested and loaded with cancer drugs. NanoVector CEO Al Bender said that this natural nanoparticle is superior to one that could be engineered by humans. Since the nanoparticle won’t open up to release its drug payload until it reaches a cell, the toxic therapeutic won’t be released in the bloodstream, which reduces side effects. The effect of a dosage is also longer lasting because the release of the drug cargo is delayed once this virus enters a cell. The technology was originally developed at North Carolina State University.
“It’s nature’s perfect factory,” Bender said. “Our GMP factory is plants.”
Photo from Flickr user cwwycoff
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